There seems to be a common ethic among people who run or use social networks and community networks. A lot of them believe it should be done out of a general desire to help people lead a more rewarding life with a wider network of friends and an expanded community. Empowering people to take charge of their own social well being is a noble task and I’m all for making sacrifices to help my community and the people in it, but after a year of trying to make my community network (Social Wave) work as a free service, I question the popular belief that these services should not make any money.
Whenever I bring up my doubts with the free usage service model, people are quick to point out the open source movement as a shining example of what loose controls and free usage can do for a person’s creation. I believe in open source, but open source is a model that works well under ideal circumstances when we’re dealing with intellectual property. It’s a much more challenging model to follow when we’re dealing with services because individuals who wish to provide services have a finite ability to provide service to all who wish to support the service by using it or even by promoting it. Remember, open source means loose restrictions on use and the freedom to contribute. It doesn’t mean that everything should be free.
I’m amazed at how some services similar to Social Wave proudly advertise that they’re not out to make money. To the ones that have the financial support to afford such generosity, I applaud and admire their noble intent. To the ones who are idealistic enough to believe that free is the best usage model to go by, I ask them how they’re going to ensure that they have the resources to stay competitive against other services like theirs, some of them run by huge companies who have the ability to make “free service” pay off for their shareholders in the long run.
In one of my previous blogs, I wrote about my experiences in working with organizations run by volunteers. Most of them follow a predictable path. They have a heyday, but once a few of the key volunteers are pulled away by other pressures of life, they start slipping into irrelevance. To all other developers of independent community networks, I advise you to find a revenue model to sustain your service if you want it to be alive and kicking five years from now. We could all be mere speedbumps for the likes of MSN and Yahoo Groups on their way to owning our social lives and online community interaction. Also please please please knock it off with slogans like "We're in this to make friends, not money." It's a little dishonest and it makes life tougher for those of us who need to make sure we can get enough income from our services to pay our expenses.