If You're Not Paying for the Product, You Are... Possibly Just Consuming Goodwill for Free
How many times have you heard the old adage about how nothing in life is free:
If you're not paying for the product, you are the product
Facebook. LinkedIn. TikTok. But this isn't an internet age thing, the origins go back way further, originally being used to describe TV viewers being served ads. Sure, TV was "free" in that you don't pay to watch it (screwy UK TV licenses aside), but running a television network ain't cheap so it was (and still is) supported by advertisers paying to put their message in front of viewers. A portion of those viewers then go out and buy the goods and services they've been pitched hence becoming the "product" of TV.
But what I dislike - no, vehemently hate - is when the term is used disingenuously to imply that nobody ever does anything for free and that there is a commercial motive to every action. To bring it closer to home for my audience, there is a suggestion that those of us who create software and services must somehow be in it for the money. Our time has a value. We pay for hardware and software to build things. We pay for hosting services. If not to make money, then why would we do it?
There are many, many non-financial motives and I'm going to talk about just a few of my own. In my very first ever blog post almost 13 years ago now, I posited that it was useful to one's career to have an online identity. My blog would give me an opportunity to demonstrate over a period of time where my interests lie and one day, that may become a very useful thing. Nobody that read that first post became a "product", quite the contrary if the feedback is correct.
The first really serious commitment I made to blogging was the following year when I began the OWASP Top 10 for ASP.NET series. That was ten blog posts of many thousands of words each that took a year and a half to complete. I had the idea whilst literally standing in the shower one day thinking about the things that bugged me at work: "I'm so sick of sending developers who write code for us basic guidance on simple security things". I wanted to solve that problem, and as I started writing the series, it turned out to be useful for a whole range of people which was awesome! Did that make them the product? No, of course not, it just made them a consumer of free content.
I can't remember exactly when I put ads on my blog. I think it was around the end of 2012, and they were terrible! I made next to no money out of them and I got rid of them altogether in 2016 in favour of the sponsorship line of text you still see at the top of the page today. Did either of these make viewers "the product" in a way that they weren't when reading the same content prior to their introduction? By any reasonable measure, no, not unless you stretch reality far enough to claim that the ads consumed some of their bandwidth or device power or in some other way was detrimental such that they pivoted from being a free consumer to a monetised reader. Then that argument dies when ads rolled to sponsorship. Perhaps it could be claimed that people became the product because the very nature of sponsorship is to get a message out there which may one day convert visitors (or their employers) to customers and that's very true, but that doesn't magically pivot them from being a free consumer of content to a "product" at the moment sponsorship arrived, that's a nonsense argument.
How about ASafaWeb in 2011? Totally free and designed to solve the common problem of ASP.NET website misconfiguration. I never made a cent from that. Never planned to, never did. So why do it? Because it was fun 🙂 Seriously, I really enjoyed building that service and seeing people get value from it was enormously fulfilling. Of course nobody was the product in that case, they just consumed something for free that I enjoyed building.
Which brings me to Have I Been Pwned (HIBP), the project that's actually turned out to be super useful and is the most frequent source of the "if you're not paying for the product" bullshit argument. There were 2 very simple reasons I built that and I've given this same answer in probably a hundred interviews since 2013:
- I wanted to build something on Azure in anger. I was trying to drive Pfizer (where I worked at the time) down the cloud path and in particular, towards PaaS. I wanted to learn more about modern cloud paradigms myself and I didn't want to build "Hello World", so HIBP seemed like a good way to achieve this.
- I wanted to build a data breach search service. Ok, obvious answer, but I'd just found both my personal and Pfizer email addresses in the Adobe data breach which was somewhere I never expected to see them. But I'd given them to Macromedia (Dreamweaver FTW!) and they subsequently flowed to the new parent company after the acquisition.
That's it. Those 2 reasons. No visions of grandeur, no expectation of a return on my time, just itches I wanted to scratch. Months later, I posed this question:
A number of people have asked for a donate button on @haveibeenpwned. What do you think? Worth donating to? Or does it come across as cheap?— Troy Hunt (@troyhunt) March 7, 2014
Which is exactly what it looks like on face value: people appreciating the service and wanting to support what I was doing. It didn't make anyone "the product". Nor did the first commercial use of HIBP the following year make anyone a product, it didn't change their experience one little bit. The partnership with 1Password several years later is the same again; arguably, it made HIBP more useful for the masses or non-techies that had never given any consideration to a password manager.
What about Why No HTTPS? Definitely not a product either as the service itself or the people that use it. Or HTTPS is Easy? Nope, and Cloudflare certainly didn't pay me a cent for it either, they had no idea I was building it, I just got up and felt like it one day. Password Purgatory? I just want to mess with spammers, and I'm happy to spend some of my time doing that 😊 (Unless... do they become the product if their responses are used for our amusement?!) And then what must be 100+ totally free user group talks, webinars, podcasts and other things I can't even remember that by their very design, were simply intended to get information to people for free.
What gets me a bit worked up about the "you're the product" sentiment is that it implies there's an ulterior motive for any good deed. I'm dependent on a heap of goodwill for every single project I build and none of that makes me feel like "the product". I use NWebsec for a bunch of my security headers. I use Cloudflare across almost every single project (they provide services to HIBP for free) and that certainly doesn't make me a product. The footer of this blog mentions the support Ghost Pro provides me - that's awesome, I love their work! But I don't feel like a "product".
Conversely, there are many things we pay for yet we remain "the product" of by the definition referred to in this post. YouTube Premium, for example, is worth every cent but do you think you cease being "the product" once you subscribe versus when you consume the service for free? Can you imagine Google, of all companies, going "yeah, nah, we don't need to collect any data from paying subscribers, that wouldn't be cool". Netflix. Disqus. And pretty much everything else. Paying doesn't make you not the product any more than not paying makes you the product, it's just a terrible term used way too loosely and frankly, often feels insulting.
Before jumping on the "you're the product" bandwagon, consider how it makes those who simply want to build cool stuff and put it out there for free feel. Or if you're that jaded and convinced that everything is done for personal fulfilment then fine, go and give me a donation. And now you're thinking "I bet he wrote this just to get donations" so instead, go and give Let's Encrypt a donation... but then that would kinda make free certs a commercial endeavour! See how stupid this whole argument is?