On The Hazards of Free

free stuff

In the past week or so, we have a few more examples of why it may not be a good idea to depend on free.

The first involves Padlet, a service that began about six years ago under the name Wallwisher. Padlet allows users to create a virtual bulletin board and then include others as collaborators. It was enthusiastically adopted by many teachers for instructional use, as well as by many of us who did professional development activities.

The service was attractive because it was relatively easy to use and, of course, the account was free. At least the basic version was free, which means someone had to be paying the server bills.

Padlet is one of many web-based services struggling to succeed using a “freemium” business model. Under that concept, a company makes money (or tries to) from the relatively small part of the user base who are willing to pay for advanced features. It’s a tricky balancing act trying to attract enough “premium” users while not giving away too much value at the free level.

This week Padlet decided they need to rebalance and announced a change to their pricing structure that removes some of that free-level value. The new model severely limits the number of Padlets that could be created by free users and, as you might expect, many of them were not happy.

Then there was another big piece of edtech news that didn’t get the same degree of Twitter coverage but still illustrates the problem with free.

Edmodo, a popular system for building communities founded in 2008 as a “Facebook for education”, was sold to a Chinese company. Their service was also free, at first, and teachers flocked to it, growing to more than 90 million users around the world.

Although Edmodo was able to raise money from investors, they never found a model that could sustain the company for the long term. The question now is how the new owners will change the service to recover their purchase price and provide an income stream. Whatever they decide will likely not be popular with users who have become accustomed to free.

Finally, there was one more reminder about the problem with free that landed in my email box. The message came from the CEO of Noosfeer, letting me know that the service will be “closing its doors to the general public” at the end of the month.

Yeah, I didn’t recognize the name either. Or remember having an account.

According to the website, Noosfeer is (soon to be was) a “content reader and aggregator”, evidently founded around four years ago. It sounds like something I would have wanted to try. I’ve opened a lot of accounts over the years. And forgotten about most when they didn’t fit my needs.

Anyway, this blip, along with the higher profile changes to Padlet and Edmodo are just the latest reminders that free is not a sustainable business model. Just don’t be surprised when “free” changes in a way you may not like. Or disappears.


The photo, by Frank Hebbert, was posted on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo Post – Science Festival

Last weekend, DC hosted the USA Science and Engineering Festival. This was the fifth biennial event, which started life in 2010 as an overgrown science fair spread across the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue. I have a few images on Flickr from that year, as well as from 2012 and 2016. Not sure why I missed 2014.

Unfortunately the Festival has turned into a commercial showcase dominated by government contractors, federal agencies, and the military. And, of course, everyone was into STEM. Sorry, arts people. I only saw one reference to STEAM.

Even with the excessive weaponization of science, there were some interesting exhibits and fun sights mixed in. Here are a few images from my time in the two huge halls, with the full gallery here

Super VR
Many exhibits featured VR and this young man seemed to be having a good time with whatever was in this world presented by the US Air Force.

 

Playing
A cadet from the US Naval Academy helps this boy with programming an Ozobot.

 

Squids 4 Kids
An organization called Squid4Kids based at Stanford University brought, what else, a squid for all of us to touch. It’s just as slimy as it looks.

Driving Lessons
And at the Army’s huge space, this young man was learning how to drive one of their vehicles using what looked like a standard video game controller.

Digging Into My Facebook Data

Piles of Books

Facebook has been in the spotlight lately, over a variety of issues related to how they collect and use the data of their “members”. Which means they’re doing a lot of apologizing and tinkering with their system, hoping to avoid more negative publicity and political interference.

But even without the recent problems, Facebook would be making alterations to their data policies, because of new laws in the European Union that go into effect next month. Among other features, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will give citizens of the EU the right to see the data companies have collected on them.

Which is probably one reason why Facebook is now offering a way to download a copy of the information they have on you. You’ll find a link to make the request under General Account Settings.

If you’re an active Facebook user, be prepared for a large file. They will be sending your entire timeline, all the messages you’ve sent and received, every photo and video you’ve uploaded, and more.

My file, however, was not large at all, a zipped file of 74kb.

Although I registered for a Facebook account ten years ago, I’ve never posted anything in that time1 and very rarely comment on the posts of others. The only reasons I open the app a few times a month are to see the latest photos from friends and relatives, and to read new comics from Bloom County. I’m just not very social I guess.

In fact, the only even slightly interesting part of my Facebook data is in the Ads section, where we find a list of advertisers with my contact info. First advertiser: Cyndi Lauper. Farther down is Rod Stewart. Very odd.

The rest of the list includes a few companies I use regularly or from whom I’ve requested information. And many sites dealing with crowdfunding I’ve never heard of. I’m very sure I did not click on any ads for these firms in Facebook or on articles related to them.

All of which leads to a basic question: why did Facebook send my information to those advertisers? What did their algorithms find in my bland profile and very sparse timeline that lead to those matches? I suspect some of this data came from the harvesting Facebook does on other websites.

Anyway, check out the data Facebook has stored in your account. You may find something even more interesting.


The image is piles of old fashioned data taken by Michael Coghlan, posted to his Flickr account, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Ok, maybe not never. I found one post I made in April 2010: “Still on my ongoing effort to figure out the appeal of Facebook and why I would want to spend time on it. At least the iPad makes it easier than than the iPhone app. :-)”. I’m still working on that.

Photo Post – Maker Faire NoVA

Last Sunday was the 5th annual Maker Faire here in Northern Virginia and I was fortunate to be one of the official photographers for the event. The Faire has grown tremendously in a short time and this year moved to it’s new home at George Mason University. Below are a few images of people and exhibits spread among three buildings and two outdoor areas. More are in this gallery.

Robots

A line up of robots waiting to come to life.

Robot Kids

There was lots to attract makers of all ages.

Dismantle Space

One of the most popular areas of the Faire allows visitors to take apart electronic devices like printers and DVD players. Because everyone is curious about what’s inside.

Maker Faire Johnson Center

I also took some 360° images at the Faire and this one of the exhibitors in the Johnson Center at GMU. Click your mouse or tap your finger in the image and drag around to see more. More 360° photos are in this Flickr album.

The Problem Is Greater Than Facebook

Following up on the previous post, a few more random thoughts related to the current Facebook data security mess.

First, the problem with the collection and use of personal data extends far beyond Facebook. Google, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp1, SnapChat, and many other social media companies all offer services you don’t pay for.

All make money through selling you, their “members”, to advertisers. All have long, legally detailed terms of service, which you agreed to (even if you didn’t read it), that allow them to use your contributions and data in pretty much any way they want. Which brings up copyright issues that are a whole ‘nother rant.

But it’s not just social media collecting your data. Plenty of companies that charge for products and services – Apple, Samsung, Amazon, your phone and cable companies, your supermarket, gas station, and big box stores (remember your loyalty card?) – collect valuable data on your buying habits. And pretty much anything else they can find. Information they can use to make even more profits.

It will be interesting to see whether Europe’s new data security laws, which take affect in May, will impact the behavior of Facebook and the others. One major goal of the legislation is to give users more control over their data, including the ability to have some of it deleted. Facebook and other data-driven companies, on the other hand, are dependent on users willingly giving over their information and not caring what happens next. 

Over here in the US, despite calls for investigation and pending lawsuits, our current laws probably don’t cover this situation. It’s also very unclear what new regulations on Facebook and other social media companies would look like, considering the long tradition of free speech rights in this country. Plus, if actual data breaches of the past are any indication, there isn’t a lot of political will to do anything related to consumer protection.

I’ve seen many calls on Twitter and elsewhere to delete your Facebook accounts. That’ll show them. Except it probably won’t since the people who actually follow through is a very, very small fraction of their overall membership. Plus, Facebook will still have your data and has the infrastructure in place to continue following you around the web.

On top of everything else, Facebook makes it very difficult to actually delete an account. Bill Fitzgerald, my go-to guy for understanding data security and privacy issues, has some recommendations for people who want to try. If you’d rather continue using Facebook, check out Wired’s guide to the complicated world of their privacy and security settings.

Finally, when Mark Zuckerberg’s name comes up in the news, does anyone else picture Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network? Considering Zuck’s shall we say “relaxed” attitude towards the privacy of his customers, I’m beginning to think the portrayal of him in that film wasn’t all that far from real life. Maybe he needs to hire Eisenberg to front him and get Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Certainly would be more entertaining.


Cartoon is by the wonderful Randall Munroe, posted at his site xkcd and used under a Creative Commons license. Check out his book What If? in which he answers absurd hypothetical questions with real science.

1. Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by Facebook.