Land you rent vs. land you own

Flickr is changing its user terms to sell a specific type of user-generated images without compensating the user. Not surprisingly, people are mad about this.  This old post about Facebook changing its terms of service to use uploaded photos in ad continues making its way around the Internet (ironically, posted mostly through Facebook). And just yesterday a business owner was complaining to me about how Facebook’s monetization policies are keeping her from reaching her audience’s newsfeed (her rant was inspired by this WSJ.com article).

My question to her: Why are you surprised?

The relationship of user:Facebook is the same as that of tenant:landlord, except that no money really changes hands (insert “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” line in the argument).  What it means is that you have no control over what happens to your creative goods.

There’s an equation at work here: It’s less of an investment to go with what’s out there than to custom-develop something, even if it’s as simple as a website. When I worked for a large state agency with thousands of photos to manage, we lacked the funds and the organizational oomph to invest in a photo archive system that was open to the public but still serve the agency. So we put 4,000 photos on Flickr.  It seemed like a good idea in 2010. It could still be a good idea, assuming that Flickr doesn’t continue to lose its mind and try and profit from there (the secondary lesson: frequently check the permission settings on any “free” social platform).

This equation is at the the center of the argument that you shouldn’t build on land you rent, only on land you own. It makes sense when you want to do improve a house and it makes sense when you want to base an online presence somewhere. The problem with free services it that you’re entirely at the whim of the service provider (Facebook limiting brand Page appearances in users’ newsfeeds is a good example, as is Twitter’s decision to insert favorited tweets into a person’s followers’ feeds).  These places aren’t in business to lose money, so why wouldn’t they manipulate the business model to their advantage?

The underlying problem is that we’ve become accustomed to being given something for nothing. It’s Facebook’s and Twitter’s and Flickr’s and everyone else’s business model. You can only do so much monetizing the basic service model. The big money is in licensing, in advertising and in making brands pay for reach.

How do you counteract it?

— Buy a piece of land. You don’t need to go as far as building your own server stack, but you need to be in control of your platform.

— Build a website and concentrate on the engagement functions: quality content, newsletters. Bring people into your home, not an apartment that you rent.

— Don’t ignore the freeish social platforms like Facebook, but don’t make them the centerpiece of your engagement. If you want people to visit those locations of their free will, make it worth their while to check it by having frequent deals and incentives.