#565. On Digital Sharecropping and Cloud Photo Prisons
Sharecropping: the rental of a piece of land by its owner to a farmer, in exchange for a share of the crop.
It can’t be considered slavery because (in theory) the farmer is always at liberty to buzz off and find new pastures to work on. Yet history has shown that what percentage of the crop is left to the famer is a decision largely in the hands of the owner. Starving the farmer is bad news for him and his family but it’s often just as bad for the land owner, who soon realises that, the greater his cut, the lower the global production.
In fact, for the past few years, North Korea has been doing exactly the opposite by making a switch from quasi-slavery to a household-based agricultural system. By giving more back to the farmers, the government has managed to increase global production significantly and raise the revenue / standard of living of its large farmer population. A smart move many European governments would do well to understand …
Digital sharecropping is a closely related strategy whereby individuals and companies alike build their online presence or other digital assets on someone else’s turf. For example, forfeiting your website for a Facebook company page is a form of digital sharecropping.
Digital sharecropping is a natural by-product of the general turn to a SaaS business model taken by the software industry as a whole (Facebook is software).
I was there, handling product marketing, when the decision was made at my previous employer’s, and the implications ran deep. SaaS (software as a service) means you can rent software for cheap and for as long as you need it instead of forking out a huge lump of money to acquire it. It is yours to use as long as you pay for it. For the customer, the price of admission to high-level features & services becomes much more realistic and budgetable. For the editor, the revenue stream is evened out, predictable and grows naturally.
The main business metric in a SaaS company is churn. More so than rental price, sales cycle or any other strategic KPI. Customer retention is essential to success as you lose a lot of money when a customer (acquired at greater marketing costs) leaves early and gain a lot when the customer ends up spending 10 times more than the old licence rate over a long lifespan.
SaaS is playing the long game.
Which is why so many SaaS companies need so much capital early in their life.
And is also why so many SaaS companies will stop at very little to retain the customer.
It is usually a very positive win-win situation, with one major caveat.
A common marketing adage goes: “if you’re not paying, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”. A cynical but realistic take on the more classic “there’s no free lunch”.
Ask Mark Zuckerberg. He became one of the richest persons on the planet by handing out free lunches by the billion. User pages, company pages, public groups, private groups, messaging, video … all free. Until reach dropped to 40%, then 16%, then 6%, then 2%, then less than 1%. But was OK because the advertising on Facebook (required to reclaim that lost organic reach) was cheap. Until it wasn’t anymore. Until it also became the downfall of the uninitiated (I use 4 different expensives pieces of software, and constant training to maintain efficiency on Facebook ads).
Ask Google. Very similar story. A tremendous and free service to the public and a more and more expensive and complicated survival kit for companies.
Many approaches are taken to ensure customer retention, ranging from extraordinary value for money and/or customer service to extorsion (offenders will remain nameless). All reflect a similar range of attitudes towards the customer as the land owner towards the farmer.
In a SaaS relationship, there is an implicit relationship between the farmer-customer (who has the power to leave) and the owner-editor (who has the power to change the rental conditions), the outcome of which depends purely on the goodwill of the two parties (yes, you can go to court, but that is never a win). Values and reputation are super important for a safe SaaS relationship.
And building your home on someone else’s turf is always going to be a riskier proposition. Ask the numerous companies who have been wiped out by a sudden change of Google algorithm or Facebook terms and conditions. For those who read French, read the recent account of the 80-person, 40 million startup who got shut down, in a single email, by Apple.
How does this relate to photography, you ask?
Post-processing is done via software. That software is either owned or rented (usually very cheaply compared to the selling price). And the use of that software to create a library of precious memories, money-making opportunities and elements of creative growth puts our work in the hands of various actors falling everywhere on the ethical spectrum of customer relationships.
Many comments, on this blog or in private, have questionned my and my colleague’s judgement for leaving the safe haven of the main providers of post-processing software.
When I published an article on how to backup photographs, the replies just blew my mind. Raid systems, one at home, one at a friend’s home, plus cloud backup, vaults, and more … It’s obvious we, as a community, treasure our photographs more than many other of our assets. What other part of our daily life are we so paranoïd about? Nothing that doesn’t breathe comes to my mind.
I’m … well … a rather poor example to follow. My photos are on my laptop and I occasionally put a few on a WD passport drive. And yet, I’ve been burgled, have lost photos to aging of DVDs and braking of hard drives, chemical destruction of slides … it doesn’t stop me sleeping at night. You lose some, you make some more …
But I find it difficult give custody of my photographs to a SaaS post-processing company. At least not until a super solid bond of trust has been established between us.
This isn’t a reflection on any editor’s ethical values but a recognition that anything in the future is possible. Acquisitions, mergers, failures, price hikes I cannot deal with … What happens to my data in those cases is anyone’s guess, and past experiences have not been encouraging.
However, others, most others in fact, will, without so much as a second thought. They create unfailable backup strategies for the files but hand their creative juices to an unknown 3rd party.
I’d rather face random burglary than corporate arm lock (voluntary or not). Any day. It’s OK to rent my software but my files and edits stay home. Mine. Forever. Renting access to software is OK. Renting access to my creative work isn’t.
But that’s just me.