I’ve long thought that our society should patronize and develop more services on the model of not-profit-motivated WordPress, Wikipedia, Drupal, and craigslist if we want a better world. I’m not condemning venture-funded and profit-motivated companies. They’ve done and will do great things; but in a macro sense, it’d be better to develop more companies oriented toward the public good than to maximizing profit. We need to bring the ethos of open source to services that we use day-in and day-out like banking, investing, housing, food production, and transit. Crowdfunding companies such as Kickstarter help this business model have new such opportunities. With the combination the two principles where companies don’t put profit first and where they are crowd-funded, we have a new opportunity to build institutions we can trust to do its users, society, and the planet right.
Web or app-based services like Facebook and Twitter are venture-funded and will likely be ruined by the company’s monetization efforts. As an example, when asked why I don’t use Flipboard, I replied that they are venture funded and don’t give their users a method to export their data. When Wall Street decides Flipboard needs to start actually making money, I want an option to move my list of feeds to which I subscribe. Since they don’t allow export (an OPML file is a standard feed export/import format), I’m not going to use them.
Did Facebook do anything for its customers with the billions it got from its IPO? It seems like they effectively just sold us out. They added ads everywhere. They are worth twice the combined market cap of the Big 3 auto makers largely because they say their ads are targeted and relevant. Have you found the ads they throw you to be relevant and targeted? Are the huge valuations of Airbnb, Uber, and WeWork a good thing?
The founders of WordPress, Wikipedia, Drupal, and craigslist made big money and great reputations. They may not be billionaires like the founders of many of these venture-backed services, but they have enough money. They monetized, but they did not sell out. They institutionalized their corporate culture by exclaiming to their user community and in their corporate documents such as by-laws that they are not going to sell out. That reputation they developed for not selling out is reputational currency in itself. Billionaires make huge money and then often give it back to charity later. Why not be like Craig Newmark of craigslist and decide that a largely-free service, ethically run, gives him and our society y the highest reward?
There’s a lot to this, and I don’t feel these few paragraphs do the idea justice. And yes, I see the irony (or hypocrisy) of my working with Microsoft’s products and espousing the use of the opposite above. More to follow.