“I don't pay for Netflix”
You tell me, in our first conversation in how many years in which we attempt to catch up. “Haha, no worries, no one does...” I brush off your casual harm to stroll along with social pleasantries.
The truth is, I don't care that you don't pay for Netflix. What I care about is how loaded that statement is to me. What I hear is, “I don't pay for software.” And that's just such a long conversation that I don't have the energy for on a normal day. And one that you're not in the mood for either.
So instead, here's an article. If you're reading this, chances are I linked you to this post after a chat.
Where to begin
There's a quote by Benjamin Franklin that goes a little something like this, “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” With regard to Netflix, this doesn't mean much. We're gonna come back to it later, so just keep it in your back pocket for now.
Netflix has only been around for 20 years or so, but software has been around for much, much longer. Just to put a pin in a particular place and time, let's just say IBM helped the Nazis with genocide in the 1940's. Not hypothetically, actually. We've had software that can perform at scale for over 80 years.
Back then, software was written on Punch Cards; pieces of paper with holes in them that were able to deliver instructions to a computer to do computer stuff with.
As a modern example, consider any time you've taken a standardized test. You take a pencil and fill in some bubbles on a sheet of special paper. Your test proctor then feeds it into a machine, a computer, that grades your test instantly.
So picture that, but for managing Auschwitz. For deciding who needs to take a shower to make room for the next influx of laborers.
Really think about that before proceeding.
I was introduced to the web at a fairly young age. I was super privleged to have grown up in a time and place that granted me extremely easy access to both computers and the internet.
I'm still blown away that I'm able to talk to anyone, anywhere in the world, instantaneously. With this power comes a great responsibility.
For the past 13 years, I've been consistently employed in an office setting. Able to use the internet to learn and grow my skills while getting paid. At every job, I needed to make trade-offs to balance my personal morality with “that's just how the world works, suck it up, buttercup.”
At Marketing Advocate, we pioneered lead-nurturing technology. Website visitors would click around wepages sponsored by Dell, IBM, Xerox, etc. We'd track what they were interested in and hand off a script for salesmen to use on calls later on.
At Liberty University, we were severely underpaid. The mantra at the time was “You Matter”, but come on. Let me ask you a question: “Have you ever had to pay your employer yearly for parking?” I'm going to assume no, but every Liberty Univesity employee at the time did. If I was a betting man, then I'd place a wager on still does.
At Inflection, we sold public records information. Anything that should be readily available by reaching out to your local government, we'd launder for Lexis Nexus. In theory, we liked to imagine our customers were old friends re-connecting. And we did start losing money as Facebook ate more and more people, so that's gotta be somewhat true. In practice what haunts me, were the customers that would buy the information of their abuse victims to “re-connect”.
At Netflix, it is the first time I've had a job writing software that I'm trusted as a professional and compensated fairly for my work without having to make choices I'm uncomfortable with. Even then, we're still a global company with a significant influence and massive amounts of data, which does give me pause.
What shows get renewed or cancelled is primarily driven by which shows our millions of subscribers choose to watch or not watch. The algorithms to present which titles at which time to which people has a significant impact on success and failure for individual creatives.
But more than our algorithms, the biggest influence is word of mouth. Going viral on social media is the greatest element in choosing which shows are wildly popular and which are culturally irrelevant.
Are Facebook and the gang really the best stewards we have for determining our collective, global cultural identity?
What about Facebook and the gang?
Facebook is a free service for people to use every day. People log into Facebook through either Facebook, Instagram, and What's App. No matter which skin you use to access Facebook's services, all that information ends up in the same location. That's how Instagram is able to recommend people to follow: based on your Facebook interactions.
From a business standpoint this matters and is what is known as a data warehouse. Or a data lake, if you want it to sound more like a vacation in San Junipero.
What people are interested in and who they are interested in is extremely valuable information for both advertisers and governments.
Can you hand me that Ben Frank quote from your back pocket?
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Let's translate that into some modern terminology.
Those that would use a free service out of convenience are neither free, nor convenienced.
My experience at Marketing Advocate taught me how trivial it is to calculate a person's interests based on their engagement on a website.
My experience at Liberty University taught me how companies take advantage of people when they are in a position of power.
My experience at Inflection taught me about the real-world dangers of selling digital people for profit.
My experience at Netflix has taught me how incredibly powerful Big Data really is. Our incentives are aligned with our customers. If we do stuff they don't like, they'll cancel.
Facebook has all of our friends and family held hostage. If they do something their users don't like, it hardly affects their bottom line. Most of them cannot leave even if they wanted to.
Many, many people do not know how to use a computer that is not Facebook.
And still, they're better than most companies because they don't package up free software and pass it off as their own to everyone, except the most astute with regards to software licensing and usage.
The International Space Station
Did you know the International Space Station used to run Microsoft Windows? In 2013, they switched to a different operating system called Debian, which is founded on a subsystem called Linux.
“We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable — one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could.” – Keith Chuvala
Linux can run on any computer. Anything from smart phones to laptops to servers for websites, unless the manufacturer does not cooperate with others. Linux was made by and is continuously maintained by volunteers.
At the surface, people generally imagine all software comes from elite corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft. That's not the full story though, despite them all clearly dominating in the consumer product segment.
The truth is that the foundational subsystems in the software you run and rely on everyday was written by people that believe in both freedom and security. I'm one of those people.
Unlike the film industry, the credits of the countless hours of effort in software development go unrecognized. Entire free and open subsystems are also able to go uncredited. Subsystems written by people that would never ask you to comply with an End User License Agreement.
The profits all bubble up to the top and people say things like, “I love Google. I love Apple.” and they believe Microsoft and Amazon reciprocate that love in return.
Dawg, it is a tough pill, but Netflix doesn't really love you either and that's why we cancelled your favorite show.
The Machine in the Middle
I'm not going to recap this entire article, but it is worth bringing up again. When we choose any software provider, whether that's a Big Tech company or this guy writing the essay you're currently reading, we're extending trust.
Time and time again, that trust is betrayed by corporations.
I used to use Skype for video calls with my friends. And then Microsoft bought them and I stopped.
I used to use LinkedIn for managing my professional network. And then Microsoft bought them and I stopped.
I used to use GitHub for collaborating with others on software. And then Microsoft bought them and I stopped.
Despite being a gamer my entire life, I never settled into Discord for my social interactions. I figured it was only a matter of time before they get bought by someone. At the time of writing, that someone is Microsoft and the amount currently discussed is TEN BILLION US DOLLARS.
This doesn't really come as a shock after SalesForce bought another chat app called Slack for $27.7 billion dollars last year.
If you asked me what is so special about any of these software acquisitions, I'd have to be honest and let you know it is not the technology. They bought the people. Free services are handed to people in a pretty package and people adopt them out of convenience.
Silicon Valley blows billions of dollars a year trying to build products they call “Sticky”. Software so addicting people couldn't quit, even if they wanted to. And the secret sauce is people. Soylent Green, if you must.
Next time you tell me that you don't pay for Netflix, remember I don't care. I just want you to think about all the other software you don't pay for and how much that costs you. That's what I care about.
I care about you.