For years, people have used services like Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn for free. Most users probably haven't thought at all about the real cost. Most of these services have a business model where the customers aren't the end users of the service. Instead, advertisers and companies provide the revenue.
Everything Has a Cost
There is a simple rule in economics - there is no such thing as a free lunch. You must pay. Frequently, it is by selling your information in some form. Google wants to mine it to serve a relevant ad. LinkedIn wants to sell you as a candidate to someone who wants to make a hire. Facebook wants to use your information to draw other users into the network so that they can sell ads to both of you.
If you have been paying attention, this isn't news. In fact, you should already have understood this. But it's easy even for savvy users to accept these terms without fully thinking about the ramifications.
It doesn't take much effort to find articles warning of the assault on our privacy. Google was featured just last week for circumventing Safari. They are also on record with a plan to merge all privacy information beginning in March.
I've been growing more and more uncomfortable with this price. I've used Gmail as my primary email for at least 5 years. I've had accounts with many of the other services like Facebook and LinkedIn. The deal they are striking though has reached a tipping point for me. I don't value what they offer enough to pay the price they are asking.
Let's talk Facebook for a minute. I've always been lukewarm on the service. I like the basic concept - allow you to easily remain in contact with your friends and family. The problem is that it is a constant battle to try to control the amount of information that is shared. I fail to see the value anymore. I have other outlets to share if I want. I don't want to be constantly reviewing how Facebook works to decide what to do.
LinkedIn is another service I no longer use. Maintaining a professional network of connections is another solid basic idea. The execution is again flawed. Overwhelmingly, the interactions I had on LinkedIn were recruiters spamming based on keywords. My resume simply gave them something to sell in bulk to recruiting agencies. None of it is optimized for me as a job seeker to profit.
Of all of the services, Google to me is the one that has taken the biggest turn for the worse. The current state of Google seems to openly mock the famous "Don't be evil" motto. Google has of course been an advertising company since the very early days. It was a legitimate trade off for a long time. Users did indeed get value in return. But today's Google skews the value equation so far in their favor that I no longer see value in nearly anything Google does.
There really is another way. You can pay for services.
David Heinemeier Hansson recently wrote about venture funded startups and how they compromise users in favor of making money. It's a favorite topic for him. I agree with much of what he has to say. If the company is not structured to be sustained by providing value to you as a customer, it is highly unlikely the result will be pleasant.
This problem is not just in the software world. It's at the root of the banking collapse or the current state of money corrupting politics. The customers in both cases aren't the people who are impacted.
I think the first thing you should do is put a price on your own online dignity. Decide what it is worth to you to own your fate and control your data.
How to Switch
I've been making the transition away from these services for a few months now. I started by deleting my LinkedIn account. Haven't missed it at all. I next deleted my Facebook account. Similarly, I don't miss it at all.
I've begun to get everything off Google. My goal is to delete my Google account by March 1. It is nearly impossible to not use Google in some form (much like it was nearly impossible to use Microsoft 10 years ago).
For mail, I've always had a tension to using Gmail anyway. I wasn't a fan of the label system. I am using two different services - Apple's iCloud and FastMail. I've had a .Mac/MobileMe account since early 2000's. I simply switched my mail to using it instead of Gmail. It's been reliable and problem free. I prefer applications for mail over web browser so it integrates just fine into my workflow. In addition, I moved my domain email to FastMail. These guys are the perfect example of how services can work. They charge a reasonable amount ($40/year to host your own domain email), you get a service. It is generally faster than iCloud and also been rock solid.
For calendars and address book, iCloud is my choice. Google's Calendar and Contacts were always incredibly buggy to me anyway. For instant messaging, FastMail provides a Jabber service so I can IM with GoogleTalk and other Jabber users. I also use Apple's AIM and iMessage services.
For photos, I use Flickr. I pay for a pro account so again it feels like I have a good deal right now - I pay them some money every year, they let me host my photos. So far, they haven't violated that trust.
For social, I still use Twitter but I'm keeping my eye on it. I fear they will head the same direction as the others. The one key advantage to Twitter though is that I am sharing just the messages I chose to send. I have always felt like I was in control with Twitter unlike Facebook. That said, I'd feel better if there were some other alternative. I think Twitter's basic form of communication is indeed valuable. But I can't see a single company being in charge of it as a good thing.
There are unfortunately services that are hard to completely leave. The biggest problem is search. I am not really sure what to do. Many people recommend DuckDuckGo. They are interesting but I know nothing about them - why should I trust them? How are they different than a fledgling Google? I trust Microsoft about as much as I trust Google. Besides, Bing doesn't seem like a good product. Yahoo is rebranded Bing. So I use Google for now but am running signed out. Maps are the same players, same problems.
The one service that has me really stuck is RSS. Google Reader effectively killed all the other RSS services and now is stagnated. Most RSS readers use Google Reader as the sync service. I'm trying to find an alternative but it is bleak.
What Can You Do?
I freely admit I'm taking the extreme approach. I am actively trying to get rid of Google in particular. It goes without saying that I am very skeptical of pure social networks for many of the same reasons.
I encourage you to at least take an inventory of what you use and why. Think about the real costs. Eliminate the services that are in conflict with you.
We should be encouraging government policy to bring about legitimate privacy standards. I don't believe this will solve it but I do think there has to be some sort of real policy to help control what is happening with our privacy.
In the end, users need to stand up for themselves and take responsibility.