If you're not paying, you're product: If you ARE paying, it's no better
Host it yourself, it's the only way to be sure
Build your own cloud - 1 There's a saying that's gained some popularity online lately: "If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold."
When it comes to free online services like the late, lamented Google Reader, this is literally true. You, or at least your eyeballs and attention, are the product being sold to advertisers. The service – be it RSS reader, email, photo hosting and search tools - are just the hook that gets the real bait on the line so to speak.
It’s no different for paid services, either.
Just because you are paying companies like Google, Apple or Microsoft you might feel they are, some how, beholden to you.
The companies are actually beholden only to their stockholders whose interests may or may not be aligned with your own, so will change services accordingly.
Start up are sometimes more reliable, but only sometimes, given nearly every startup is angling for a big payday that almost always results in shutting down the service. LaLa anybody?
In other words, don’t expect your paid service from a big provider or a start up will still be there in five years' time.
Even if the service doesn’t get yanked you run the risk that one day you’ll lose something critical thanks to a systems outage or hard-drive crash.
The closure of Google Reader earlier this year offers a salutary lesson in the dangers of investing too heavily in services you don't control. I always knew I was too heavily invested – it was the cornerstone or my research and helped me stay up with tech news for a very long time. I didn't really know just how badly I was exposed to Google's whims until the company decided to shut down it down. No more Reader doesn't so much as put a crimp in my workflow, it eliminates my workflow.
I'm not the only one. Millions of reasonably savvy web users lost years' worth of data – yes, you could export your feeds, but not much else.
The question is, did I learn from this? Detach from the cloud and build your own cloud – that would seem to be the takeaway.
Sometimes it makes sense to go with a service. Facebook is Facebook, trying to run your own Facebook isn't just silly - it's impossible. The value of Facebook is the network, not the service it provides.
But for personal tools like email, file sharing/syncing or - in my case - an RSS reader, relying on anything not in my control doesn't make sense.
Not that I didn't start with the idea of moving to another service. In fact, I evaluated dozens of options, but while Feedly is interesting and Feedbin works with numerous third-party apps, I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that I was just setting myself up for another failure down the road.
In the end I decided to bite the bullet and set up a self-hosted RSS reader on my own server because I wanted to be in control. More than I wanted the convenience of a hosted service like Feedly, more than I wanted a seamless transition from Google Reader, I wanted control.
At the end of the day, this is the only way to ensure your data is yours, remains free for whomever you'd like to have access to it and isn't sold off to the highest bidder is ... to own your own tools.
It used to be that running your own file-sharing server, self-hosting an address book, email server or photo sharing application was a Herculean task. In fact, many a bookmarking service, email provider and photo sharing web site started life just because one person figured out how to do it and then their friends wanted in, and then friends of friends. Next thing you know you're running del.icio.us.
Fortunately these days it's not that hard to get a private server up and running with the latest version of Ubuntu installed and every bit of software you might need only an apt-get away.
If even that sounds like too much to worry about, there are hosted solutions that will spin you up a server instance with hosting software like ownCloud pre-installed and configured for easy, private services that are (largely) under your control.
Obviously the simpler your set up, the more you're beholden to your hosting company. For example, most of the ownCloud providers I've tested don't allow you to customize much, nor do they always offer speedy updates (though this is usually for stability reasons so it's often a good thing) or if they do offer customizations it's considerably more expensive.
Everything on the internet is a series of trade-offs, so the more you're willing to do yourself, the more you're willing to assume responsibility for, the more you'll be able to ensure your data is under your control.
The good news for individuals is that you're not alone, there's a whole fellowship of like-minded, self-hosting people on the web offering tutorials, hacks and even GitHub repos full of software. Thanks to some recent efforts from larger businesses and organizations like NASA with the OpenStack cloud architecture in 2010, many of which are just starting to realize the dangers of being dependent on third-parties for key infrastructure components like email or file sharing, there's a lot of fantastic software out there.
For my RSS needs I ended up testing out both Fever (which I've used off and on for years) and TinyTinyRSS, which ended up being my day-to-day favorite. I use Fever as well to monitor infrequently checked feeds and to discover trends and overarching themes in my feeds. Setting both up is dead simple, I've got mine running on a simple $5-a-month shared host. Any shared host that offers PHP and MYSQL/PostGRES will do. So you are paying for something, which should make those who like to pay for things feel better (Fever is also not free, though it's just a one-time license fee).
Setting up either one is no more difficult than setting up WordPress on your own server. You'll just need to upload the files, add your database info to the configuration file and click through a series of installation pages. As with WordPress when you're done you have the same great features you'll find in hosted solutions, but you'll be in control.
The payoff for that extra bit of effort is huge compared to the actual effort and what you end up with is control. In the increasingly cloud-based future of the web that means the next popular saying could be: "If you aren't hosting your data, it's not your data". ®