I have blogged on this topic before but it was back in 2009 and I feel it needs re-visiting. The whole web feels built on the premise that stuff should be free. And if you subscribe to Chris Anderson's view this is a wonderfulworld where it can only get better.

Would you pay to use Facebook? Pay to use Hotmail? Pay to use Twitter? Even pay to search using Google? For a lot of people that idea seems ridiculous. But think back a decade or so and the idea of stuff just being given away free would have seemed equally crazy too. I don't know how we got here. Most people would say it's a pretty great thing. But in many ways I don't like it.

Free in my opinion sucks.

Free means customer service often isn't up to much
So if your Facebook account falls over or your Hotmail stops working, what do you do? Whinge on twitter about it? Struggle with posting the info on a forum and hope someone will help? More likely cross your fingers and wait for it to get fixed. If you were  to pay say $10 a month or whatever, there'd be an immediate loss of revenue if you quit due to the problem and if you told all your mates about it and they started to quit too it would hurt the company's bottom line. You'd have protection under consumer law I'd imagine too. You paid for a service, the provider has an obligation to provide it. If it's free. Well, tough.

Free means you're a guinea pig
The 'forever Beta' disease could be another way to describe this. We never get a finished product. It's always being tested, mucked around with, changed. Just as you thought you knew how to manage your privacy settings on Facebook - whoops they all changed again. I really hate this 'fail fast' crap. It's an excuse for launching tons of junk and hoping some of it sticks. Google in particular does this so much. Remember Wave? Ever even heard of Hotpot? Blah.

Free means it could all get taken away from you
It was delicous a month or two back. The rumours were that Yahoo would sell its smart little web-based bookmarking gizmo and who knew what might happen then. UK readers - do you remember Friendsreunited? Or how about Freeserve? If you're lucky, when the business goes down or runs out of cash it will get picked up again by someone else with deep pockets - which is ultimately what happened with Delicious, thank goodness.

Free means the company you are dealing with is dumb
Of course it's quite easy to get loads of people to try stuff out if it's free. It's crap - but so what, it's free. You can't expect too much from something free now, can you? How did we get to a situation where it was seen as cool to just launch something and have no idea how you'd make money from it? No wonder the financial system went into meltdown a while back if investors were happy to pony up cash for no reason other than 'quite a few people like us'. Dumb.

Free means you will end up paying anyway
The 'fremium model'. What a load of bunk. You get a bit of something in the hope you will then trade up and pay for the real deal. A good example - I've been looking at apps for the iPhone. There are lots of free apps to places - they seem to offer much the same as the ones you pay for. Except you then discover that you've only downloaded an app with next to nothing in it. You have to pay to get the full version. And it constantly bugs you with pop-ups to do so.

Free makes it hard to choose
If you're in the market for say a hotel room in Seville you can make your choice based on cost among other things. You have a budget of around 100 dollars for a night you can immediately discount say 80% of the hotels because they are much more or much less. If everywhere was free - how would you work out which was right for you? You could certainly do it, but it would take much much longer. Price is a valuable yardstick for helping us choose. Right now how do you decide which webmail service to use? Yahoo? Google? Hotmail? I don't know either. And which social platform? Twitter? Facebook? Google +?

Free means they make the rules
Facebook has privacy settings set to 'on' for everything. Do people want that? Seriously? MSN publishes lots of free content - but you have to wade through pages to read it because they need to hang as many ads on as many pages as possible. It's the most hopeless reading experience imaginable. Your data and habits are being quietly mined by companies like Google and Facebook and the powers that be have been cowed into accepting that that's OK because the products you are using are being given to you free. Check out this fascinating piece about Google and the way it makes the rules to ensure it makes money whilst giving the impression its impartial.

Free means the product could suck
In a market where a big corporation with buckets of cash gives things away for free it squashes competition. Free is anti-competitive. There could be thousands of brilliant Facebook-like Social Media platforms, Search Engines, Webmail products and more out there, but we won't ever get to see them because the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook give their products away for free so new entrants find it virtually impossible to compete and stay in business. And free content often conforms to this rule. How much spammy crap content clogs up your search results on a daily basis? It looks great in the search results, but click on the link and you find it's a load of waffle.

Free means someone is working for peanuts
This isn't always the case, but often for start-ups trying to compete in the web space (where big corporations are squashing competition by giving stuff away for free) the only thing to do to try and compete is to try and do stuff at virtually no cost too. The number of times I have been approached to write stuff for free or give away my back catalogue for free to new content websites on the vague hope that I might one day make some money from ad revenue or whatever. I just tell people politely that I don't work for free, but doubtless a lot of people trying to get a foothold on the ladder are prepared to do this. My experience is that if you start writing for nothing, peanuts is all you will ever get paid.

What do you think? Ever wished you could pay for something but have to accept a poor quality free thing instead because the market can't provide anything else?


18 thoughts on “Free sucks – seriously. I hate it

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    Long time no talk.

    I understand your opinions, but consider some of these ideas:

    Human connections and interactions don't always have to be about money. We don't charge friends for coming over for dinner. Partners don't charge us for sex. Parents don't expect payment for raising children. The most valuable things in life are free.

    Being human is about generosity and contribution. It has only been a few centuries since capitalism messed that up. Capitalism is good, don't get me wrong, but consumption is killing our planet, not to mention our minds. Instead of buying useless goods and services, perhaps we should be focusing on giving for the sake of giving.

    What if you had enough to survive so that you didn't have to work again? What would you do with your time? Would you work more so that you could consume more? Or maybe, would you try to give more to your community? That is what free services like couchsurfing, linux, craigslist, wikipedia etc. do.

    The Internet, Wikipedia, Linux and couchsurfing would never have worked as a paid business model.

    I believe we live in a time of great affluence. Why shouldn't everything be free? We could easily feed the entire planet if there weren't such economic distortions like tariffs, subsidies and trade barriers. Instead of taking everything for ourselves, perhaps developed countries could reduce their consumption and give the excess to bring up the most under-privileged.

    One last argument, in economics Price = Marginal Cost in a competitive market. If the marginal cost of production is zero (as it is for online products) then prices will always tend to free. Only monopolies can extract monopoly profits. Extracting excessive profits doesn't create value for society, that is why monopoly markets are illegal.

    :-) Thanks for starting the discussion.

  2. Hi John

    Nice to hear from you and thanks for your comment.

    I take your point that we shouldn't pay for everything - intangible stuff like relationships etc are on a different plain entirely. But I wasn't really considering life, the universe and everything.
    I was thinking purely about stuff that we get on-line.
    Over-consumption is indeed not good, but I'd argue that giving stuff away for free actually encourages this. Part of the obesity problem in the US is the way fast food outlets for example encourage people to trade up by offering more and more food for just a few cents extra.
    To take a few of your other examples - and I don't know all of them well - but Wikipedia... they're asking for donations on a pretty regular basis there IS a significant infrastructure cost - to suggest that it's just 'free' is nonsense. And Linux... sure, it is free, but I can't use it... too complicated for a non-techy like me. A good example of my 'constant beta' theory above.
    And affluence and 3rd world aid. I think this point of view is very idealistic. Many - and I agree with them - say that the fact that we give stuff free to these countries simply encourages a lack of self-sufficiency and allows dictators to stay in power because their people get used to existing on hand-outs.
    I'm sorry I don't really understand the economics stuff!

  3. I think free is great! Without free, I'd probably never have started my blog, or come across your article via Twitter ;)

  4. I am a fan of paying for things. As an example, I know people running their business email via Google. Is it worth it? I'd rather pay (in our case the grand total of £30 a year extra to our hosting company Vidahost) for an IMAP service, know it is backed up, have someone who does support immediately if needed. Worth it just to keep our privacy.

    On a tangent I have heard some internet marketing types say you shouldn't pay for links, only get free ones but same people who encourage PPC! I'd rather pay someone who runs a hobby site say £25 for a link which they've written than pay even more on Google ads.

    1. Hi Dee
      That's a great example. I actually WANTED to pay for the pro/premium hotmail service as I figured I'd then be able to get them to fix problems within 24 hours and I'd have no more annoying ads. But when I tried to sign up for it, there was absolutely no information at all on what you got for your money! Weird. That was about a year ago... so maybe things have changed. But I would definitely pay a small fee for a really solid, dependable, backed up webmail service.
      And I also agree with your comment about paying for a link but (shhhh) you not supposed to do that! Google says it's EVIL! Quite why they make the rules, I'm not sure...

  5. Ah, the good old freemium model – the bane of every parent's life.

    Your child spends 10 minutes playing a free game online - Disney's Club Penguin, for example. And then they want the trading cards (50-75p per pack; hundreds of packs) and then the binder (£8.99), and the lunchbox (£5.99) and the upgrade that lets them into the 'members area' (£4.99 per month).

    My 6 year old son is currently nursing three of these brand addictions simultaneously.

    Try getting him to believe 'the most valuable things in life are free'. Believe me, I've tried!

  6. I pay for a lot of things, and my experience is all too often that all of the above still applies. Most of the time, it merely means being overcharged, followed by lenghty spells in the company of an answering machine.

    I agree with your last point - the losers are the content generators (and I would love to see that change!) - but I do love the democratic nature of the internet and the basic principle of being able to find information for free. Not too different from the concept of libraries, really.

    Perhaps the upside to all the free stuff is that only the quality products will survive charging. That's certainly not the case in the non-virtual world!

    1. Hi Beate
      I agree that even when you pay for stuff you aren't guaranteed great service. But at least it gives you more of a stick to beat them with!
      Would be nice to think that only quality will survive but unless google can work out how to stop people gaming its search results I can't see that happening...
      PS: Must correct you on libraries. They are paid for... out of your taxes and mine!

      1. ...and happily I pay for them too! Or at least until Cameron put the boot in.

        Even so, not all library users pay taxes, nor are free things ever all that free, as people have pointed out, so I'll stick with my comparison:)

  7. The problem is that we are hooked to freebies and it is very hard to give up and pay for things you are used to receiving free. There are paid alternatives for all the free stuff - would be interesting to see how they compare.

    NOTHING is free. Somebody somewhere has paid. From the free paper you pick up to the goodie bag you throw away. The third world aid scenario doesn't work since those countries "pay" 100s times more than they ever receive paying back debt interest. Time is money so the production cost for online products isn't really zero.

    I once gave a beggar a sandwich i'd just bought but he complained that he didn't want it as it didn't have meat. Should we all be more like that when we receive something free?

    Free sucks sometimes.

  8. In perhaps the most obvious example of hypocrisy I have ever indulged in... the pic of course on this blog post is FREE from Flickr.
    And I forgot to credit the author: http://www.flickr.com/photos/geopdx/
    Justin, if you are reading this... please forgive me!
    (See... he did get something back in return!)

  9. Largely in agreement, but you're preaching to the converted alas. The problem is persuading the generation that has grown used to content (music, words, pictures etc) being free. And I can't see how that is going to be done.

    1. Fair point. Although some day they will grow up and need to earn a living... they might change their minds. Not all of them to be fair though... probably not many at all.
      The basic premise that Lynda sets out nicely in her comment though is that someone, somewhere is paying. You canna change the laws of physics... as someone once said.

  10. Gah. Hit submit too early there...

    I meant to add that "free" doesn't necessarily mean "free" - it means "advertising supported". Now that model is nothing new. The argument is similar to the BBC licence fee versus ITV ads one...

    1. Absolutely. And, whilst the BBC annoys the heck out of me... I probably watch 10 times as much BBC stuff as ITV stuff. In fact I hardly ever watch ITV these days. It's so full of celebrity tittle tattle. So I still pay my licence fee without grumbling too much...

  11. I agree in large part about your broader issues, but I'd qualify it if you want to get into the particular issue of free content online. Then I'd say it all has to do with expectation and the value you perceive that you get for cost. So, if you were giving away your content for free online as the New York Times once upon a time did, then the shock and awe upon visiting one day and discovering a sudden change, and that you were being confronted with a paywall, outrage might be understandable. But if a site has a strong enough niche, brand and identity and presents itself from the outset of its life online as a user-friendly one in terms of presenting some useful content free, but some other sections for member/subscriber only, then you're not creating false or changing expectations for your traffic while also providing them something for their effort in coming by.

    1. Hi Hal
      I agree. I still get cross when I hit the Times' paywall here in the UK... but that's simply because I've been conditioned to expect stuff for free. What is a bit annoying is I buy their print edition quite a lot and often see articles and think 'I want to share that' (ie by linking to/tweeting about the online version of it) and I can't. No idea how they get around this problem... but they lose out a lot on that network/sharing effect as a result.
      On a more general level I applaud them for having the guts to try the paywall model.
      Have I subscribed? No. (I guess that also makes me a bit of a hypocrite too)

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