There are two companies in Silly Con Valley who are still invested in the model of “cash on the fucking barrelhead in exchange for goods and services” – one is Apple and the other is Amazon. Everyone else is pushing “free at the point of use.” (To some extent, even Apple is doing this, although it’s hard to quibble with the notion that the Steve-Jobs-as-Scarlett-O’Hara DNA is still in the Cupertino bloodstream, what with the desperate need to never be dependent on Google or Microsoft or anyone else for critical services. Plus selling the phones is the big ticket; my 99 cents a month for extra iCloud storage is peanuts.)
We’re starting to see some of the limits of this. The biggest one is that when you don’t pay for a service, you have no recourse. I don’t know what the legal implications of this are – lack of consideration generally means there’s no contractual obligation, or so I was led to believe – but it certainly seems to me that the combination of “eternal beta” with “free at point of use” means that the service can change in any way at any time and if you don’t like it, tough shit, you paid nothing so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Problem is, this means you also have no leverage at all. If you quit using Twitter, which has richly earned the label of “a honeypot for assholes,” you’re not taking a penny out of their pocket. If you stop using Google’s Gmail offering, it does you no good, because 4/5 of the other people you email are using it and your content is just going to be parsed and data-mined same as if you were using it. You can bail out of Facebook, but they have half a billion other people willing to keep churning away. It would take a complete collapse of the online advertising market to put a hole in these companies, and for the likes of Google and Facebook, they essentially are the online advertising market.
Meanwhile, while we weren’t looking, Amazon essentially became the Internet’s Wal-Mart, a monopsony buyer which can ruin suppliers by leaving them off the site or demanding they meet a price point or just by moving into their market with their own-label goods. Wal-Mart was a bad company, sure, but the destruction of brick-and-mortar retail means that there aren’t going to be local jobs created by Amazon other than at fulfillment centers. (I suppose they could get into the delivery business themselves, if UPS and USPS aren’t enough. Maybe staff it out to Uber and Lyft, who knows.)
But that’s Amazon. If you’re willing to just go to a store – assuming one is handy – you can avoid that. Problem is, “social media” is pretty much entirely in the hands of Facebook or a handful of others (and don’t get it twisted, WhatsApp and Instagram are both Facebook and both doing everything they can to snipe other services like Snapchat). Trying to keep up with friends without using one of Facebook’s products is damn near impossible at this point unless you’re prepared to round up everyone you know to use something like Slack, or roll your own listserv, or convince everyone to use some other app suitable for group texting (even if it just ends up being shared SMS).
That’s the increasing problem: the Internet is maximizing the worst of humanity, but the only practical solution as an individual is to opt out. I guess I’m just lucky to be part of the last generation that knew you could have a life that wasn’t online, even if that online life got me to where I am now. But it’s reaching a point where depending on the vicissitudes of social media is a fool’s errand. Of which.