Posted: 11 Nov 2013 12:56 PM PST
Freedom of Speech – Zacqary Adam Green: “What is everyone complaining about? This is a free service, and [large corporation] can do whatever they want with it!” That’s true. Also wrong. Please stop saying it.
There’s always outrage whenever a popular online service like YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, or Whatevr makes some kind of unpopular change, or when unscrupulous business practices come to light. And in return, there’s always outrage at the outrage. “The service is free,” they say, “and it’s owned by a private company. Go use something else if you don’t like it.”
This is usually code for “I disagree with your complaint, and I get insecure and anxious when people have opinions that aren’t mine, because it reminds me of how alone I am in the universe. Therefore I am lashing out rather than attempting to explore my capacity for empathy.” It’s also a pretty weak argument.
On the one hand, yes: private companies can do whatever they want with their websites, and nobody can stop them. On the other hand, free speech allows people to be assholes, and say asshole things like, “This is a free service, and the parent company can do whatever they want with it,” and nobody can stop them. But we can sure try to stop them by criticizing the hell out of it.
This is how freedom works. It means nobody can kill you, imprison you, or fine you for doing whatever you want; not that nobody can yell at you. You are perfectly free to be an asshole. I am free to tell you you’re being an asshole. Then, you’re free to stop being an asshole. Or not. Or you could keep being an asshole. But if you did that, you’d be such an asshole.
That’s the crux of the issue. If you’re interested in exploring your capacity for empathy, here are a few reasons why it might be okay for people to complain about a free service.
“Go use something else if you don’t like it,” reminds me of, “If you don’t like ‘merica, you can get out!” Like, have you seen Canadian visa requirements? It’s not that easy. Switching away from a free service is a lot easier than emigration, but with the amount of lock-in and monopolization going on in the tech industry, it’s still often a challenge. Other services might not integrate with your OS or your other services the way that a badly-behaving market leader does.
Social networks make this even worse: if nobody else is using an alternative, then you’re effectively cutting yourself off from the rest of the world. In this day and age, Facebook, for example, has come to define the way billions of people communicate every day; it’s nearly impossible to switch away from. If Facebook were an open-air plaza in a city, the government would have reasonable cause to invoke eminent domain and seize it for the public. When something privately-owned grows big enough, and starts to affect enough people’s lives, it’s no longer okay for the private owner to do “whatever they want.” The public has become a stakeholder.
This is also true, by the way, for smaller niche networks besides Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Size doesn’t always matter relative to the whole world; impact on a community is what matters.
If you, a private individual or company, aren’t prepared to hear your users’ concerns and deal with them, then please don’t start an online service, and especially not a social network. Even if only 10% of people are upset about something, they still matter. “You can’t please everybody” isn’t an excuse when you’re running something as infinitely personalizable as a web service. You still can’t please everybody, but you can come pretty close if you care enough.
If those last four paragraphs don’t do anything for you, that’s fine. You’re not required to agree with anything. But please just stop trying to shut down or dismiss criticism of anything just because it’s “free,” and because people “don’t have to” see it or use it. If their complaints are ridiculous, go right ahead and point that out, but if you try to deny someone’s inalienable right to complain, you’re kind of being an asshole. So don’t do it anymore.