Thanks to the continued growth of inexpensive hardware that makes it cheap and easy for people to create content, the average consumer is drowning in thousands of minutes of user-generated video, a few thousand photos and likely a few days worth of audio content. We want our content on demand, wherever we are, on whatever platform we want, right now and however we choose to use it. It's "our" content, right? So what if it's not physically on our computers?
"Cloud computing" provides us the ability to do that. One click on the right device with an internet connection is all it takes to download a song or app from iTunes or a book or a magazine on a Kindle; to view, sort and edit our expansive Flickr libraries; to collaborate on a presentation in Google Docs; to back up our desktop files using Dropbox or Box.net; to catch up with e-mail on Gmail (and have it sync in real time to an iPhone, BlackBerry, web browser and desktop mail program); to store biographical, connection and friend data on Facebook or running data with Nike Plus. You get the idea. The ubiquitous broadband connection and high-speed wireless networks available in the majority of America's homes and businesses have made access to the cloud just about instantaneous.
Of course, the best part about all of this is that it costs nothing. It's easy to use, free and completely extensible. The hope, of course, is that many of these free customers will at some point opt in to premium services, which will offset the cost of all of the free users. It's called the "freemium" model, and its success has depended largely on the actions of the brands who attempt to execute it.
You don't worry much about your content in the cloud, until the company with access to "your" content decides the access and storage conflicts with its desired business model.
This is what happened with Kodak Gallery last week.
Long story short, Kodak Gallery decided it was going to require users to make minimum purchases in order to subsidize the use of its websites and kill its freemium model. The new plans range from $4.99 to $19.99 per month. And if you don't pay the fee or provide a minimum purchase by a given date? Your photos will be deleted.
"Wait," I thought. "These are my pictures that I've uploaded over the course of nearly five years. There are 3,000 of them!"
Obviously frustrated by the thought of losing my photos, many of which were gone from local storage due to hard-drive failures, I had to figure out my options. Now you may say, stop right there: Why weren't you backing up your photos? The answer is that I thought I was. I had started to use my Kodak Gallery as a repository for photos in case of the inevitable hard-drive failure. Why Kodak Gallery? Physical storage wasn't as cheap then, Kodak offered a free solution to my problem and Flickr hadn't yet become as mature as it is today. Stupid to put my photos exclusively in the hands of a brand I trusted? Perhaps. But I believed the hype and trusted Kodak to do the right thing with my content -- forever. These were my photos, my data, and I had confidence that they would do the right thing. These were my Kodak memories. I had five years of trusted transactions with this company.
So I reached out to Kodak using the new customer-service model: I messaged it on Twitter. After spirited conversation, two blog posts, a video, sharing the accounts of other people affected by the change and explaining my cause, it became obvious that "cloud computing" was a digital Bates Motel: Your content checks in, but it's much harder (or impossible) to check it out. The only ways to get all of "my" photos back: pay the storage fee, order a $70 archive CD, or download 3,000 photos, one at a time. Hard lesson learned.
It's now no longer about picking the brand that will do the right thing; it's a matter of how long until it, too, considers this sort of policy shift. How long until you're put in this sort of position and content that was once so close becomes very far away indeed? What happens if Yahoo is sold and Flickr changes its rules? Kodak may be the first, but it surely will not be the last company that changes a policy.
The post mortem on this campaign will become the stalwart of a risk analysis for someone else looking to do this in the future, and if the results of the blowback become perceived as "not much," it becomes an acceptable risk for the next guy.
As for my photos? They're still deleted. A Kodak PR representative finally reached out to have a dialogue about my concerns. Am I blameless here? Probably not. But I'm a consumer who trusted a brand that I was loyal to. Is Kodak free to change its business model? Of course. But has it changed my mind about the brand? Absolutely.
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Matthew Knell is a co-founder of Social Media for Social Change (SM4sSC), teaches social media and information architecture at New York University, and blogs about life and the internet at tagsmith.org.