In my recent posting about Glamour Bees[stderr], I mentioned that it’s a good idea to plan for what happens if your free photo hosting service decides to change their business model, as photobucket did. Astute Commentariat(tm) member Jenna K. pointed out that I appear prescient.
After years of cheerfully hosting all sorts of erotic content (please let’s not call it ‘adult’) Tumblr’s new owners, Verizon, have decided to change their terms of service and are no longer allowing certain types of material: nipples, genitalia, stuff like that.
[ars] Nowadays, pornography represents a substantial element of Tumblr’s content. A 2013 estimate said that around 11 percent of the site’s 200,000 most-visited domains were porn, and some 22 percent of inbound links were from adult sites.
If you, hypothetically, had spent years curating a gallery of your art and that art involves “female-presenting nipples” then you’re suddenly going to have to re-create your work elsewhere. You’ll also have to re-establish your digital presence, etc. Suddenly, the ‘free’ hosting at tumblr doesn’t look like such a great deal. If you were disciplined about it, and only used free image-sharing sites as a way of ‘teasing’ subscribers to someplace else, then you were part of Tumblr’s value proposition.
History: Yahoo! paid $1.1billion for Tumblr in 2013 [nyt] in a completely pointless attempt to stay relevant to the internet at large; their sole value proposition was the user-base. When Verizon bought the shattered worthless remains of Yahoo! they got the shattered worthless remains of Tumblr, too. Tumblr turned out to be a bit of a pain the the neck, because suddenly Verizon had to manage user-provided content including copyrighted material and child porn. Dealing with DMCA takedowns and visits from the FBI is expensive and time-consuming, but it should be expected as part of the reality of running a social media site.
The problem is what’s known in security-wonk-ese as “supply chain risk” – I used to have clients ask me, all the time, “what about cloud computing?” My standard answer went something like this: “cloud computing is for organizations that already do not know how to do IT. If you plan on de-skilling some part of your process, then make sure you have a plan for how to avoid ‘lock in’ – which means you’re replacing IT staff with governance. Eventually, when they realize that they have all your data and you have no option to move, you’ll find that your pricing changes. If you don’t believe me, tell me one thing: does your organization track how much you currently spend with Microsoft?”
More History: in the early days of computing, IBM ruled everything and eventually beat out its main competitors (Control Data Corp, Burroughs) – it became the “data processing cloud” of its period and once everyone had their data in mainframes, the prices started to go up. After all, there was no alternative. IBM’s price-gouging and lock-in triggered “the mini-computer revolution” – initially departmental servers and workstations aimed at the engineering and management market (Digital, HP, Sun, Apollo, Sequent, Pyramid, et al) based on proprietary operating systems or flavors of UNIX. Those systems were complicated and required expert system administrators to keep them running, which made them much more expensive than they appeared. Meanwhile, a company called Microsoft was making a desktop operating system that was sold as super easy to use but it actually turned out to be one of the most expensive, management-intensive, pieces of crap in the history of computing. One of the reasons Microsoft became so popular in spite of its gargantuan flaws was (other than file formats) there was relatively little attempt to lock the customer in. That happened by default as all the various mini-computer vendors succeeded in putting each other out of business.
Lock-in and IT de-skilling are a fact of the technology cycle. What really weirds me out is that companies seem to accept this, and the lock-in trap, as though they are inevitable. What is going on? Management is deciding whether the cost of administration for in-house IT is higher than the cost of outsourcing it (excuse me: “cloud”) and they just assume they’re going to get screwed either way.
The value-proposition, such as it is, for sites like Tumblr, Yahoo!, Facebook, is “lock-in” too, except there’s not much lock-in, really. Is putting up with Tumblr’s change of TOS more or less of a headache than running your own site? The obvious answer, which nobody seems to hit on, is sharing arrangements. Suppose a group of sex workers wanted a Tumblr-like service – why not share it with a like-minded group? The same applies for other IT services – I have long wondered why several companies never banded together to use a common email system, before Google came along, and everyone seems to have decided to completely ignore common sense and regulatory frameworks, to put all of their valuable data into a search engine and advertising company’s hands. It’s insanity.
What’s really nonsensical to me is that Tumblr still has any value at all; I wonder if after this it will be like Myspace. Or Yahoo!
If someone is giving you a free service, it’s because they have other plans for how to “monetize” you. The degree to which they can “monetize” you will directly depend on how awkward they can make it for you to leave, or how valuable they can make your digital real estate. It just took me 2 minutes to delete my Tumblr account. I guess that’ll tell you what Tumblr’s worth.
“They’re going to get screwed either way” – I think that’s what’s going on to a large degree. IT is hard. For the last few decades, vendors have sold systems based on the idea that “it’s easy” which is manifestly not true. The breakaway business success stories are the companies that used IT brilliantly, to dramatically offset its cost by opening new opportunities. Everyone else? They’re like the guys who showed up at the California gold rush a year after it started: they’re mostly going to feed the service economy that grew up to profit off of miners.
I like how Tumblr specified “female-presenting nipples” and I wonder if someone who wrote that remembers the image I posted on deviantart which was a mostly nude woman, with a man’s nipples photoshopped over hers. Naturally, I did not flag it as “inappropriate” because for some reason men’s nipples are not evil, shocking and horrible whereas women’s are. Or something. Who expects the christian sharia law to make sense? [deviantart]