What do Web services like Facebook & Twitter owe their users?

23 Mar

There’s been lots of noise recently around Web services and their relationships with their users. Facebook users were up in arms about the recent privacy policy changes (since rescinded), there’s increasing noise about the customer service (or lack thereof) from Twitter. Facebook’s redesign has caused an extraordinary backlash: you’d think some of these folks had been personally assaulted, such is their anger. Gmail  goes down for 15 minutes, and it’s like the world has ended.

Gmail, like the others above, is free for non-enterprise users.

That’s the key point when looking at these complaints: these services are all free.  So, just as users of Google’s free analytics product have much less right to complain than those of the higher end and more fully featured (but paid) Omniture Site Catalyst, the real question is whether  it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of service or % of uptime when you’re not paying for a product?

If you’re getting something for free you have to take it as it comes to some extent, but in truth it’s more complex than that.  Long term each of these services will look to generate revenue from their users in some capacity (some like Gmail already are); whether through subscriptions, advertising, sponsorship or some other stream.  To succeed, they need a happy and active user base. Ignoring their users’ complaints at this stage could damage them long term: the Web is littered with the carcasses of services that ignored their users.

You could reasonably argue that Twitter users have no right to complain about not getting a level of service they are not contractually entitled to, but in order for it  to succeed, they need to keep users happy so they don’t go elsewhere. The road to that success starts with listening to their users’  complaints. The customer is always right, even when it comes to free services.

Interesting thoughts on this over at the Social Media Club. It’s their question of the week. Where do you stand?  Are folks being reasonable in complaining, or does the fact they’re not paying for the service mean they have to accept whatever level of service they receive?

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10 Responses to “What do Web services like Facebook & Twitter owe their users?”

  1. DanD March 23, 2009 at 5:57 pm #

    Free or not, people want service. If the Gmails and Facebooks and Twitters of the world do not listen to their customers people will find another free alternative that does. However, since both Google and Facebook are selling ad impressions in their products then we are indeed “paying” for the service in a way. In fact, if you listen to the big wigs at other free services like broadcast television networks we are actually stealing from them by not looking at their ads. Since broadcast TV ratings continue to drop as new service models emerge, Facebook and Google would be wise to listen to their customers.

  2. pinxi March 23, 2009 at 6:47 pm #

    Time is money. I spend time on these sites, sometimes too much time, so I expect a certain level of service. They get the benefits of aggregating my data to become multi-billion dollar companies, so they should make sure that I can post the picture of my dog for my mom.

  3. NickP March 23, 2009 at 9:16 pm #

    I don’t buy the “paying through ad impressions” position. Display advertising is so non-invasive that advertisers have ecstatic about CTAs in the .2-.3%. The relevance of the ad that ultimately produces an action is inherently providing value rather than producing cost.

    People complain about downtime and Ads, because of a [True or False] sense of entitlement that is natural with a consumerist society. I would bet that psychologically, free services like Facebook and Twitter are viewed no differently than paid services like cable TV and phones because we’re wired expect perfection and unimpeded enjoyment from any service. I’m glad I don’t pay for Facebook or twitter – If I was paying my hard earned money to hear the nonsensical ramblings of 98% of the tweets out there, I might have to rethink my online habits and go to the park, or something.

  4. David T. March 23, 2009 at 11:24 pm #

    It’s not a matter of what they “owe” their users, per se, but what level of service they should provide if they expect to keep them. In the world of free services, you’re only on top until the next big thing comes along unless you’re rolling out the next big thing yourself. Google does an excellent job of this with small, incremental releases. Changes on facebook are much more jarring.

  5. Marc Sirkin March 24, 2009 at 5:31 am #

    My expectations are actually in line with 2 things.

    1. What I pay. Since it’s free, I grant them some downtime, even occasionally without notice. Totally different if I were paying.

    2. The competition. @DanD is right, if a service fails to live up to some basic expectation of up time or features, I will just leave. That however, doesn’t explain why Twitter survived so many outages.

    As for the Facebook thing… enough already. Bunch of damn cry babies out there making noise for making noise sake. If I remember correctly, the news feed thing generated similar outrage but with the extra “privacy” bits… and that feature alone has propelled FB to new heights and sent everyone scrambling to replicate that feature. I used to be a huge believer in always listening to your customers when doing product development, but am less sure about that lately. Innovations (real, true innovations) don’t come from focus groups or online bitch sessions. They come from a deep understanding of your users and a vision for the future. I for one, hope both Twitter and FB keep experimenting and innovating. It’s fun to watch.

  6. RyanDS March 24, 2009 at 7:20 am #

    The Facebook privacy furor does not quite fit in here, at least with regard to the issues I saw in the photographic community. They required you to grant them unlimited commercial rights in perpetuity for all content you published. The wording of this was far in excess of the rights required for any of the other online content/image sharing sites free or otherwise to operate. With the rise to dominance of the micro-stock image sales model there was significant commercial value in the rights to those images and FB effectively tried to lay claim to that value quietly and without alerting the rights holders. For every 10,000 images of Aunty Bessy squeezed into a swimsuit roasting on a beach in Florida there is one image that Shepard Farley will turn into an icon. Flickr realized this and has joined with Getty Images for the benefit of all parties including their user base, Facebook tried to have it all for themselves.

    Our expectation of reliability for nominally free online services is probably based on a significant feeling of entitlement. We have been getting free stuff, reliably, for so long that both have become the norm, it should be free and it should be reliable or I will go find it elsewhere. The web was to have been a new era for the newspaper print industry as they could distribute electronic papers for virtually no cost to a much wider audience. Unfortunately for their model that wider audience had access to many more news outlets and it quickly became a race to the bottom. I don’t think anyone has any expectation of paying for news content anymore. I agree with Mr Sirkin, the consumer invests little and therefore can walk away from a service with little cost, this means that such services have to be innovative and attentive to their consumer’s wants or they will witness just as precipitous a drop in their audience as their initial rises. This is less about the right to demand reliability, or if that demand is justified, but much more that users of such services have the power to demand it. The service can either provide it or live with the consequences of not providing it, no one can force them to change or sue them, but they rely on those large user bases for their business models.

  7. kaimac March 24, 2009 at 11:19 am #

    @DanD – quite. if people don’t like it, they’ll just go somewhere else

    @casey – ‘cept time isn’t money tho, that’s the issue. it costs to run the services and they have to pay for them somehow. my question is whether it’s reasonable to complain when we’re not paying?

    @nick – perhaps you could do both? or take your laptop… they have wireless in the park nowadays, no?

    @DT – yea, agreed re google vs facebook. Wonder why that is? Facebook really need some PR help, I don’t remember a single release, update or change that has gone well for them.

    @marc – are the twitter outages really that big a deal tho? if it’s down this morning I’ll just check back later. and it’s always come back. if i were paying I would be annoyed, but I’m not so it doesn’t bother me *that* much.

    @ryan – to be honest, I think the facebook thing was them being clumsy rather than malicious. attempting to protect themselves (‘if’ your photo ever shows up, vs ‘we’re going to use it’) – classic legal overkill, imo.

  8. DanD March 24, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    re: “Facebook really need some PR help, I don’t remember a single release, update or change that has gone well for them.”

    And yet they are growing exponentially. People complain, but nobody is leaving just yet. There is a level of effort with switching social networks not unlike switching banks.

    re: “if a service fails to live up to some basic expectation of up time or features, I will just leave. That however, doesn’t explain why Twitter survived so many outages.”

    Perhaps Twitter survived because they were unique and no-one else provided what they provide. Now that Facebook does more or less perhaps they will have to compete instead of simply augment. I know I am tired of reading tweets, and then logging into Facebook to see all the same tweets as status updates there. In the end, Facebook aggregates both my friends’ tweets and updates from friends not using Twitter, so its easier for me to catch up there. However, I get tweets from people I’m not friends with on Facebook so there is still value in Twitter. What I will end up doing eventually, through Facebook controls, Twitter controls or a yet to be created third party tool, is segment my Facebook updates to be all my friends, and my Twitter updates to be everyone else. This is one reason why people want groups in Twitter. I haven’t used groups in Facebook much before, but with the fire-hose of updates currently going on and the placement of groups in the upper right of the new home page, it seems we are being nudged in that direction.

  9. kaimac March 25, 2009 at 5:15 am #

    @DanD – yea, fair point about facebook growth. Still think they could have handled Beacon and privacy stuff much better though. Why not give Zuck the opportunity to speak to the community first, rather than putting him on the back foot? Agree re the status update point too, surprised that app doesn’t exist already actually.

  10. Joe April 20, 2009 at 4:37 am #

    Folks invest a lot in social applications like Facebook (time and effort, if not money) so it’s understandable that they are annoyed when things change in a way that negatively affects their experience.

    Freeloaders or not, it would be foolish to ignore the concerns of these users. The value of the service to marketers, subscribers and other revenue streams is in its users. If the service doesn’t satisfy users will stop using or go elsewhere.

    Are folks being reasonable in complaining? Probably, considering what they are worth.

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