Just because you can make money from something doesn’t mean you should, and other rules of the web

Here are a few things I’ve learned from 20 years of living online, developing or managing online things and using lots and lots of things others have developed. I’ve learned them by writing and by reading about those online things. I’ve learned them through personal successes and personal failures. I’ve learned them from watching others succeed and fail. I’ve learned them by using this blog to chornicle what I’ve seen flow by me since August, 2000, when it was created.

I’m going to number them, but they are in no particular order. I will note at the bottom what the current context is for me writing this post, however, they are rather universal lessons. Each one of them could be a book, but you’re lucky, I only had about 30 minutes to devote to this.

1. On the internet, when you think you are using a “free” service, it is only a perception. Like your parents told you, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

2. If you create a service on the internet and you want it to succeed, it’s okay to make money any way you can as long as you tell your users what you are doing and your users agree to that method.

3. If you are a user of a service on the internet that involves you sharing, friending, following, pinning, writing, networking, book-marking, checking-in or dozens of other versions of expressing yourself, managing your identity or building connections with people, you are not only adding value to that service, you are that service. And when I say you are “adding value to that service,” I mean just that, even when I describe it in positive terms (editing an open-sourced encyclopedia of knowledge) or when I describe it in negative terms (hampters in a cage or share-cropping).

4. There’s an unwritten pact that says everything’s okay when it appears there’s equilibrium in the value accruing to the creators of the platform and benefits being recognized by the users of the platform. However, at different points along the evolution of a platform, the balance of perceived value can seem out-of-synch. At those points, the creators better respond with humility and respect to the users and remember the old saying, “pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.”

5. If you create a platform on the internet, if your users start screaming in rage on Twitter or in their blogs about something you’ve done, rejoice. You matter. You are successful vs. your 50 potential competitors who no one cares about enough to complain. Now, listen. Respond. Fix it.

6. If you are lucky enough to be this week’s obsessed new thing, use the spotlight to show how humble you are. Apologize for anything and everything. Even when every fiber in your being says, “I’m right and they’re wrong.” Do not try to convince a mob they are wrong. Kill whatever has enraged the mob and then figure out another way to do the same thing later in a way that appears to be dreamed up by the mob.

7. Always be aware of the existence of what I call the Scoble 24-hour Rule, based on a quote from the omnipresent ubber-blogger Robert Scoble: “Never expect bloggers to do fact checking or original reporting. But if a blog (post) survives 24-hours without anyone refuting the facts? That’s when rumors turn to belief.” (Today, Robert would probably say that about Twitter, Facebook and Google+ rather than a blog, but the principle still applies.) In other words, unless you are Apple, you have to respond to rumors and mis-interpretations of what you do immediately, or you are implying that the rumor is factual.

8. If your platform is enjoying rocket-like growth in buzz and user adoption, don’t waste your time on trying to defend a controversial practice. Dump the practice and focus on growth. Don’t get sidetracked on defending how you can make pennies when you have the opportunity to make dimes and quarters. Just because you can make money from something doesn’t mean you should.

Be like Matt Mullenweg back in 2005, before you ever heard of WordPress and he was 21 years old.

Read this post written by Andy Baio in March, 2005, about the early, early days of WordPress. Especially focus on this quote that Matt Mullenweg, who is today an internet demigod (but, again, he was 21 at the time) said about a practice he was using to bootstrap WordPress (no need to go into it here, you can read about it on Andy’s post):

“(It) isn’t something I want to do long term but if it can help bootstrap something nice for the community, I’m willing to let it run for a little while.” He added that if the user community didn’t like it, he’d end the program. “Everything we do is user driven. If it turns a lot of people off I definitely don’t want it. At the same time, if you think people don’t care, it provides some flexibility in setting up the foundation.”

Hey, in 2005. Link spam was new. Matt killed the practice immediately and the rest is history.

9. I could go on and on, but I must stop.

Why I wrote this: A controversy over what may or may not be a practice of this nano-second’s darling of the social web, Pinterest, is allowing some real-time study of the points I’ve written about above. Personally, my thoughts on Pinterest and this controversy are this: They should find ways to monetize the site other than skimming links* and converting them to affiliate links (if you don’t know what this means, read the post I linked to). They should view the platform as a common carrier that users can use to express themselves. I believe such a neutral stance will protect them from the obvious copyright battles they will face if they take actions that will make it appear they are benefitting financially from something that could otherwise be labeled “fair use.” One area that I think is clearly a bad move by Pinterest (and something I’ve seen them accused of, but haven’t seen a response within 24 hours, so I’m about to consider fact) would be converting user affiliated links (links to the affiliate accounts the users have set up) to Pinterest affiliated links. That, to me, is a clear violation of the un-written pact between hampsters running on the wheel and the owner of the cage.

Final note: I like Pinterest. I’m using the Pinterest account, Pinterest.com/Smallbuiness to show it’s not just a “girl” thing (like when Twitter was a “what are you doing?” thing), but is a great platform of curragating (curating, aggreagating?) and organizing any visual ideas or topics. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t take the time to complain.

*I don’t find the practice of skimming links evil. However, I think that it’s a practice best used by publishers who are clearly presenting content that they own or create or have an implicit and transparent control over. In other words, “common carriers” or hosts of user-generated content might want to steer clear of it for legal or user-perception reasons.