Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

I’m Not The Product, But I Play One On The Internet

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

I don’t know who said it first, but the line has achieved a kind of supernatural resonance online. And for good reason – it describes a kind of modern internet company that provides a free service. These businesses are designed to aggregate a large number of users in order to sell that audience’s aggregate attention, usually in the form of advertising.

But the more the line is repeated, the more it gets on my nerves. It has a stoner-like quality to it (“Have you ever looked at your hands? I mean really looked at your hands?”). It reminds me of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” a phrase that is seemingly deep but collapses into pointlessness the moment you think about using it in any practical way.

There are several subtextual assumptions present in “you are the product” I think are dangerous or just plain wrong that I’m going to attempt to tease out here. Many of these thoughts have been triggered by Instagram’s recent cluelessness, but they’re not limited to that. I also want to be clear that I’m not arguing that everything should be free or that we shouldn’t examine the business plans of the services we consume. Mostly I’m just trying to bring some scrutiny to this over-used truism.

Assumption: This is new or unique to the internet.

Free, ad-supported media has been around for a long, long time. When I was in college, before the web existed, I worked on alternative newspapers. Not only were they free, we actually walked around campus thrusting them in people’s faces.

I guess you could call the people we gave them to “the product,” but it sure didn’t feel that way when I was driving my VW Bug over Highway 17 filled to the roof with newsprint. The product was the thing I broke my back creating and hauling around.

Online ad-supported media is no different. It’s free, it builds an audience, and then it sells access to that audience in small chunks to companies willing to pay. There are ways to do that while still maintaining respect for the consumers. We’ve been doing it for years.

Assumption: Not paying means not complaining.

The “you are the product” line is most often repeated when a company that provides a free service does something that people don’t like. See Instagram’s recent terms change or any Facebook design update. The subtext is, this company does not serve you, you don’t pay for it, so shut up already.

But that’s crazy talk. If a company shows that they’re not treating you or your work with respect, vote with your feet. Uninstall. Delete account. Walk! And make sure they know why you split. It’s the only way we have to make companies feel the repercussions of dumb, user-hostile decisions.

Assumption: You’re either the product or the customer.

I’ve worked for, and even run, many companies in the last 20 years with various business models. Some provided something free in an attempt to build an audience large enough to sell advertising, some charged customers directly, and some did a combination of both. All treated their users with varying levels of respect. There was no correlation between how much money users paid and how well they were treated.

For example, at JPG Magazine we sold something to our audience (magazines, subscriptions, and ultimately other digital services) and we also sold ads and sponsorships (online and in print). We made it 100% clear to our members that their photos always belonged to them, and we had strict rules for what advertisers could do in the magazine. We also paid our members for the privilege of including their photos in the printed magazine (as opposed to Instagram’s new policy that they can use your photos however they want, even in ads, without paying you a dime).

This example is much more complicated than the black and white “you’re the product” logic allows. In some cases, users got the service for free. In others, they paid us to get the magazine. In still others, we paid them! So who/what is the product?

And just because you pay doesn’t mean you’re not the product. Cable TV companies take our money and sell us to the channels, magazines take our money and still sell ads, banks and credit cards charge us money for the service of having our money. Any store that has a “loyalty card” takes our money for products but gives us a discount in exchange for the ability to monitor what we buy. In the real world, we routinely become “the product” even when we’re already paying.

Assumption: Companies you pay treat you better.

I should be able to answer this with one word: AT&T. Or: Comcast. Or: Wells Fargo. Or: the government.

We all routinely pay companies that treat us like shit. In fact, I’d argue that, in general, online companies that I do not pay have far better customer policies and support than the companies I do pay.

The other day I had a problem with my Tumblr account. I sent an email. In less than an hour I had a kind, thorough, helpful response from a member of their support team. Issue fixed.

The next day I had a problem with my internet connection. I called my provider. After listening to hold music for a long while, I got someone on the phone who obviously spoke English as a second language, was not allowed to deviate from their script, and had less experience with the product than I did. They did not fix the problem. I was told to wait until it fixed itself.

The difference between Tumblr and my ISP? I pay my ISP over $50 a month. I pay Tumblr nothing.

Thinking critically about the business models of the services you use is a good thing. But assuming that because you pay means that things will be better is a very bad idea.

Assumption: So startups should all charge their users.

The apex of this argument is Maciej Ceglowski’s Don’t be a free user essay, in which he advocates that people “yell at the developers” of sites that don’t charge money.

Look, I’m thrilled that Pinboard has been a financial success for Maciej. I’m a paying member! And he’s right that it’d be nice if more companies could turn their users into customers that support the business.

But not all businesses can be run that way. Entertainment and media companies are rarely able to charge their consumers for their product. My company, Cute-Fight is a fun game, but I couldn’t throw up a brick wall on the homepage and expect it to succeed as Pinboard does. It’s just not that kind of business.

This blind “my way is the only right way” thinking is a poison to innovation and destructive to those of us building free services that do have business plans. Some businesses require mass adoption to work because they depend on economies of scale or a large audience. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

What’s inherently wrong is a company changing its terms of service to screw their users. What’s wrong is a company that sells your data without your consent. What’s wrong is a company that scales back customer service to save a buck, leaving its customers angry and frustrated.

But those things usually have nothing to do with whether you’re paying them or not. They have to do with the company’s leadership, their level of complacency, and their demonstrated respect for their customers.

Bottom line it, Derek.

We can and should support the companies we love with our money. Companies can and should have balanced streams of income so that they’re not solely dependent on just one. We all should consider the business models of the companies we trust with our data.

But we should not assume that, just because we pay a company they’ll treat us better, or that if we’re not paying that the company is allowed to treat us like shit. Reality is just more complicated than that. What matters is how companies demonstrate their respect for their customers. We should hold their feet to the fire when they demonstrate a lack of respect.

And we should all stop saying, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” because it doesn’t really mean anything, it excuses the behavior of bad companies, and it makes you sound kind of like a stoner looking at their hand for the first time.


Update: Unsurprisingly, Instagram has said they’re going to “modify specific parts of the terms” in response to the outcry. We’ll see if they make substantive changes.

Followup: Instead of telling people “you are the product,” which creates a feeling of inevitability and powerlessness, let’s say this: “If you don’t know how a startup will make money, neither do they.”

Cute-Fight: A Twitterrific New Venue

We’re thrilled to announce Cute-Fight’s newest venue, the ultimate cage match, the Twitterrific Thunderdome!

Twitterrific Thunderdome

Gilded in gold and floating through the clouds is the Twitterrific Thunderdome, where animals of all kinds do battle over the finest periodicals.

The Thunderdome is sponsored by Twitterrific 5, a simply beautiful way to tweet for the iPhone & iPad. Color-coded timelines and customizable themes make reading fun and easy. Pictures, locations, and people search means tweeting is sweeter than ever. In the App Store now!

We want to thank the folks at Twitterrific for sponsoring this new venue. Twitterrific was the first app we ever used to tweet, and version 5 is better than ever. Plus, their mascot, Ollie, is an adorable bluebird! It was meant to be. Support Cute-Fight by giving the app a try. We think you’ll love it.

And then come start a fight in the new venue! We’ll see you there.

Other Newness

We’ve spruced up many of the pages in Cute-Fight, so take a look around if you haven’t visited recently. We’re especially proud of the cool new fighter leaderboards. Is your fighter there? Keep fighting and they will be!

42And we’re always adding new badges and trophies. This week we added badge number 42, so it was obvious it had to have a towel on it. If you don’t get the reference, don’t panic.

We’ve also improved the code behind the scenes to play nicely with a wider variety of browsers. So if you had a problem with the site before, please give it another try.

See you in the fight!

Bug Demands Belly Rubs

Bug Demands Belly Rubs

Just because I was experimenting with animated gifs.

Cute-Fight: We Love Your Photos

We just released the biggest update to Cute-Fight since launch and we’re pretty excited about it. New photo pages, spiffier member profiles, top fighters, new badges and trophies, and lots of other bits and bobs are afoot.

photos from cute-fight

New Photo Pages

If there’s one thing we love almost as much as our pets, it’s photos of other people’s pets. So we’ve created a bunch of great new ways to share photos on Cute-Fight.

BobAll the photos you’ve uploaded to Cute-Fight now have their very own pages, suitable for linking. You can also add titles and descriptions (a top request). Just click them to edit.

If you’re more of a photo viewer than uploader, you can now visit the main Photos page where you can see all the new photos as they come in.

And if you see a photo that you just love, say so! Click the little heart to show your appreciation. The photo will be added to your member profile under “Loved Photos.” Speaking of profiles…

New Member Profiles

Your member profile got a big upgrade, too. It now shows the fighters you’re a fan of (another top request) as well as the photos you love. Plus it just looks a bit more spiffy. Here’s mine.

Top Fighters

MaggieYou can now sort the fighters page by most wins or most fans. That’s how we know Maggie has the most fans of any penguin, and Simon is the winningest cat. But don’t get too comfy, Cute-Fighters. There are plenty of new contestants on the rise, and we’re still working on our ultimate leaderboard algorithm.

Piece of Cake TrophyNew Badges and Trophies

We’ve also added a bunch of funny new badges and trophies. We don’t want to give away the surprise, but pie and cake both make an appearance. Apparently we’re still recovering from Thanksgiving.

There’s only one way to collect ‘em all: play the game! Start a fight today.

Other Bits and Bobs

We’ve made a bunch of changes to the site in response to your feedback. Badges and trophies now appear on your homepage. Voting and cheering is faster (just hit return to add your cheer and jump to the next fight). You can now remove cheers if you don’t like them. Sharing on Twitter and Facebook comes with better text descriptions. And, oh yeah, you can now delete your account if you really want to (but we’d be sad to see you go). Thanks for all your feedback. Keep it coming!

Cute-Fight Is Live

On Halloween, in the dead of night, when everything was at its spookiest, we launched the site! Cute-Fight is now live and open to the public at

Cute-Fight HomepageIf you were part of our private alpha, thank you so much for your help. We couldn’t have done it without you. You and your fighters are now live to the world. If you’re just joining us now, welcome! We’re so glad you’re here.

And, hey, dig that new homepage! We listened to your feedback and launched a new, fully tricked-out homepage that should be interesting whether you’ve got fighters or not. The homepage now includes a featured fighter. Fill out your fighter’s profile and upload lots of photos and your fighter could appear there, too!

Another change you may notice is the appearance of Facebook and Twitter on the site. You can now post tweets and status updates from the links at the bottom of every page. This is, of course, optional.

We’re very excited to release the site publicly and hope you’ll have more fun now that your friends and family can sign up, too. Speaking of, you can still send invites. If you know a pet that you want to see in the ring, invite their human!

Two Photos and 7,000 Miles

I spent a lot of time in this room today.

It’s in St. Mary’s Spine Center here in San Francisco. I’m lucky that I live close to one of the best spine centers in the country. I’m lucky that I’m not in as much pain as some of the people I met in the waiting room. But I’m not so lucky that I didn’t need to be there.

The Median nerve goes from the your spinal column to your thumb. Mine is pinched at my C6 vertebra. Which is why, for the last two weeks, my right shoulder has felt like a brick, my right arm occasionally seems like it belongs to someone else, and why I can’t feel my right thumb at all.

Turns out, I use that right thumb a lot.

I’ve been this way for over two weeks and almost cancelled the Australia trip because of it. Then I almost came home early. But a Cortisone shot to the spine alleviated some of the pain, so I pushed through. Some people come home from vacation with nicknacks – I come home with MRI scans.

I’m glad I stuck with the vacation, because I got to have moments like this.

That’s me and Wally the Humphead wrasse on the Great Barrier Reef, a 90-minute boat trip from Cairns, Australia, and about 10 feet down. With all due respect to the wonderful people at Web Directions South, meeting Wally was probably the highlight of the trip.

The internet tells me I’m about 7,000 miles away from that moment right now.

Seems like more.

Busy Bunny

Please excuse the interruption in Cute-Fight promotion for a little self-promotion.

'RoidWeek #3: rabbit (tequila, derek)I’ve been remiss in letting you know that I’ll be speaking at Web Directions South 2012 in Sydney, Australia, on October 18. I’ll be kicking off their Startup Track with a session called “The Personal Side of Starting Up.” I’m very excited about this. It’s a brand new talk and a chance for me to synthesize the last 17 years into some sort of cohesive hourlong narrative. Easy, right?

I’ve done a few interviews lately. I gave Lisa from Puppy Tales an exclusive first look at Cute-Fight, where I talked about meeting my in-laws for the first time. I also popped up on the Let’s Make Mistakes podcast to talk about “mansplaining” with Mike and Leah, where I made about half a point. And then I had a lovely chat with Jeffrey on The Big Web Show about my past startups, what I’ve learned, and how I’m applying all that now.

And speaking of Jeffrey Zeldman, he wrote something so nice about me on his site, it made me cry. Seriously. If you read only one thing online today, and you happen to be my parent or potential investor, make sure you read this: Unsung Heroes of Web and Interaction Design: Derek Powazek. Thank you, Mister Zeldman, I feel well and truly sung.

We now return you to your previously scheduled Cute-Fight promotion.

Alphas Are Experiments

cute-fightCute-Fight is currently in private alpha. That means the whole site is locked behind a password, and you have to request an invitation to join. People often think that a private alpha is just cover for an unfinished product, but that’s wrong. A private alpha is an experiment with a specific goal. And like any good experiment, it starts with a hypothesis, and failure is a valid result.

The main question in the Cute-Fight alpha was: Will anyone do this? The answer has been a resounding “YES!” Our small pack of early members has already created hundreds of fighters, fought thousands of fights, and cast over 30,000 votes.

But that “yes” had caveats. We included a form at the bottom of every page that said “Give Us Feedback.” Anything put in it was emailed to the team. And we’re learning a ton from our early Cute-Fight members (who are all smart people with adorable pets, by the way).

So I decided to write down three interesting things we learned from them and what we changed in response. Later, all of this will look obvious, as everything does in hindsight, but right now it’s an exciting series of discoveries.

“How do I start a fight?”

Discovery: A lot of early members had no idea how to start a fight.

Context: The site is set up for Cute-Fights, but we also wanted people to be able to opt-out if they didn’t want to fight. And you can’t start a fight unless you had a pet listed yourself. And even then, the pet had to meet certain criteria (like having enough photos). As a result of all of this complexity, you could start a fight from some fighter profiles and not others. If you were just looking to start a fight, it was difficult and frustrating.

Tweaks: First we added some help text to the fighter profiles and upload system to explain that a pet had to have three photos in order to fight. We also took new members right from fighter creation into photo upload, which helped ensure most fighters had the minimum three photos. But none of that solved the core problem: people still didn’t get how to start a fight.

Solution: We created a single fight creation process to help people start fights. All they had to do was click the “Start a Fight” button, which we placed in the sitewide header. If they didn’t have a fighter, they’d be prompted to create one. If that fighter didn’t have enough photos, they’d be asked to upload some more. If they had a fighter with photos, they’d be shown a random selection of other fighters they could challenge. Once they selected one, they went into the normal challenge process.

Result: Overnight, all the “How do I start a fight?” questions stopped and fight creation went through the roof.

Unintended Side-Effect: The rate of new fight creation spiked. Some voters complained about seeing the same fighters in too many fights. To fix this, we just implemented a throttle on new fight creation that hopefully very few people will ever bump into. (When a fighter is in three concurrent fights, if the manager tries to start a fourth, they’re told that the fighter is tired and needs to rest.)

“Losing makes me sad.”

Discovery: Even though Cute-Fight is a silly game, and we’ve designed the site to reinforce the silliness, some early members let us know that losing made them feel sad.

Context: Games need to have stakes, but our goal was to make losing as fun as possible. That’s why we have badges for the fighter that didn’t win and other random rewards. Still, we had a problem.

Research: I contacted members who reported feeling bad and asked them some questions. Was it the fact of losing that made them feel bad, or something more specific? Where did they first have that sad feeling? (Side note: being comfortable talking about feelings is pretty helpful in startup life. Hooray for therapy!) The members reported that it wasn’t the losing that hurt, it was being reminded by the loss in big, orange numbers on their fighter profile page. They were already feeling ownership of the page (good thing), but having proof of losing on the page was a bumming them out.

Tweak: As an experiment, we removed the win/loss numbers from the fighter profile pages entirely. We wanted to see if anyone noticed. Only one person asked where they went. No one complained. And no new reports of “this makes me sad” have come in since.

This is only a temporary solution. Cute-Fight is a game, and games have scores. But we need to find a way to reward players for winning without making people feel bad for losing.

Aside: This is why so many games have unlocking achievement reward mechanisms. It rewards play with random reinforcement (more powerful than consistent reward), but does not punish poor performance publicly.

“Where are my friends?”

Discovery: Cute-Fight is a social game, and social games are more fun with your friends. But, in the beginning, we had no way for anyone to find anyone else. This was no big deal when there was one page of fighters, but when it became 20 pages, people started to ask: Where are my friends?

Context: The long-term plan has always been to have copious connection to social networks, with importing of your social graph and exporting of fight information. But because the site was locked behind a password during alpha, we removed that functionality.

Side Note: It amazed us how much people talked about Cute-Fight on Twitter and Facebook, complete with links, even though the site was inaccessible to most people (and we warned them in email this was the case). This is just more proof that you don’t need a pile of “SHARE THIS” buttons to get people to talk about your thing – you just need a thing worth talking about.

Research: I spoke with members making this request, and they were pretty evenly split. Some wanted to log in with Facebook or Twitter credentials and see who in their network was playing, some didn’t care about that. But everybody wanted to be able to search the site for people or pets they knew.

Solution: We’d had search on the To Do List for a while, but it was a fair way down. We’d thought it wouldn’t be important until we had a ton of members, but our members told us they needed it now. So we’ve moved it to the top of the list and hope to launch it soon. It’ll be simple and won’t solve the whole problem, but it’ll help. Full Facebook/Twitter integration is still on the list, but not until public beta.

Those are just three examples of changes we’ve made in response to feedback. There are lots more (like the player cards, revisions to the voting and cheering mechanism, and the slow load-in of photos). Like I said, the best part of skating to the puck is that, when it works, your community will tell you where they’re going. Your job is just to keep up.

Thanks to our early members for being part of this wild experiment. There’s more – much more – to come. Wanna play?

ps – We’re also looking for angels.

Starting Up: Nobody Go Near A Bus

cute-fightWe’re working feverishly on Cute-Fight right now, so I’m thinking about startups. This is one of those thoughts.

There’s a lot to say about how hard startups are. They require an enormous investment of time and energy. And even when you go in prepared, there are still moments when you say, DAYAM this is a metric fuckton of work. (Cussing helps relieve stress. Science said so.)

So why do it? Here’s one reason.

There are four of us working on Cute-Fight right now. If any one us were hit by a bus, we’d be fucked. (Again, cussing helps.) We are all doing several jobs at once, and every one of them is absolutely critical.

Devin is responsible for everything on the backend. He’s programming, administering the servers, and doing tech support. James is the designer, but he’s also writing serious frontend code. Chris is drawing as fast as he can, as well as thinking through how those illustrations work on web pages. I’m kind of the conductor and the cleanup crew. I’m art directing, designing the game mechanics, talking to investors and mentors, writing the site text, and responding to feedback from our members. (Side thought: All CEOs should have to respond to support email. It’s impossible to maintain any illusions in the face of an inbox full of people with the same feedback.)

If any one of us was hit by a bus right now, the whole thing would fall apart. This is not the way “real” businesses work, but that’s also why people like us start companies. When is that last time you felt completely irreplaceable at your job? Like the company’s life or death depended on you doing your very best work?

The insanity of starting up is crushing, but so is the boredom and monotony of “regular” work. If you’re someone who feels replaceable and extraneous at your job, try a startup. It’ll make you crazy, but you’ll never feel unimportant.

Starting Up: The Love

cute-fightWe’re working feverishly on Cute-Fight right now, so I’m thinking about startups. This is one of those thoughts.

If you go to business school, they teach you about indicators and predictive analysis. You’re taught to identify a market opportunity and exploit it. Your personal affinity toward the particular market doesn’t factor into the equation.

I did not go to business school. I learned everything I know about business from making websites, working at startups, and experimentation for kicks. I learned the most watching startups fail. I’ve had a pretty good education.

I once half-started a company. I identified a market opportunity, built a business plan, bought some domains, and started building. And then one morning I woke up and realized that, if everything went perfectly, I’d spend every day doing something I hated. The market opportunity was awesome – I just wasn’t the guy to do it. I had no love for it.

One way of looking at entrepreneurship is this: What will you look forward to doing every morning? You should start a company around that.

Because, truth be told, startups are hard. Like, really hard. So if you don’t have The Love for what you’re working on, you’re going to fail. Or, put another way: most startups fail, so you might as well spend the time working on something you enjoy, just in case you succeed.

If Cute-Fight is successful, I’ll wake up every morning to look at adorable pets. Not bad, as dayjobs go.

You made it to the bottom! You must be very good looking. Wanna go back to the top now?

Hi, I’m Derek. I live in San Francisco and make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.

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