by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
customers, user generated content, users


Expectations Matter, Even If You're Not 'A Customer'

from the false-distinctions dept

We recently had a discussion about law professor Eric Goldman's complaints about Scribd, after the site, which he'd been using regularly to upload and share legal documents, quietly put up a paywall on older documents without making that clear to users. Suddenly, many old documents that Goldman had thought he was sharing with the world, were hidden behind a lock and key, unless you paid up.

While many people agreed that this was a mistake on the part of Scribd, in talking with Goldman separately about this, he noted that a few people strongly disagreed with his position, and noted (accurately) that he was getting a free service from Scribd, and thus he was "not a customer" and shouldn't complain at all. We received a few similar comments here, effectively suggesting that if you're not paying, you're not a customer and, thus, have no right to complain.

This is silly -- and wrong. It's where the often artificial distinction between "customer" and "user" and "product" gets blurry and, at times, questionable, especially in the realm of "user-generated" content. There are more ways to "pay" than with money. In Goldman's case, he's actually been "paying" Scribd by providing it with valuable, sought-after content that he uploads. Scribd is "paying" Goldman with free hosting, bandwidth and services. Advertisers are "paying" Scribd with money. Users are "paying" Scribd with their attention. All are "customers" in some sense, while also being users and, potentially, "the product," as well. Focusing only on the relationships where actual cash exchanges hands misses the point (greatly).

Once you realize that, it makes perfect sense for Goldman to complain. He was using the service under pretty explicit terms that he was providing these documents to share them with the world. Scribd unilaterally (and quietly) changed those terms on him, to something completely different. In turn, by pissing off Goldman, and having him seek alternatives, Scribd is actually harming its overall site. Even if you accept the narrow definition of "customer," to suggest that Scribd's only customers are their advertisers, pissing off Goldman should still be seen as a problem, because as Goldman uses alternative services, it lessens the "product" that Scribd can offer to those particular "customers."

So rather than going with the kneejerk, "well, if he's not paying for it, he has nothing to complain about," it's important to look at the overall ecosystem, and how different pieces are "paid" in different ways -- and how upsetting one key element of that ecosystem, can harm all sorts of "customers."

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  1. identicon
    Gene Cavanaugh, 22 Sep 2010 @ 11:57am


    I strongly agree with Mike's comments, but take issue with the "not a customer" statement (by whoever).
    While I stopped practicing civil and criminal law a long time ago, and now focus narrowly on small entity IP, I remember the relevant classes as if it was yesterday (law is fascinating, when you really get it!).
    The law then, and I expect now, is the exchange of benefits creates a contract (thereby making one a "customer"). Scribd has the benefit of a larger viewer base. Marginal benefit? Sure. Adequate? Certainly!
    So, paying or not, he is/was a customer!

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