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Paul Jarvis

Ideas for a more transparent internet

I’ve been thinking a lot about the internet. I started using the internet when it involved more people than companies, and although it wasn’t perfect back then either, there was a lot to like.

The internet is a little (or a “lottle”) broken right now. Socially, we’ve all agreed to the idea that we’re willing to trade free access to a platform for its ability to know almost everything about us. It’s not just Facebook or Google, it’s any software or platform that doesn’t have a revenue model based on end users paying for it. We socially agree to this exchange because we use those platforms.

The problem though, is this: if we aren’t paying for the product, we are the product (#).

If we have free access to anything online, it’s only because that company has found a way to monetize our information, probably for advertising or even more nefarious things.

We need to stop giving away our data and our users privacy for “free” access to a tool.

With a problem as far reaching and monumental as this, it’s been hard to wrap my head around taking action (I’m all for complaining, but long ago I made a deal with myself that I’m not going to complain about something unless I’m also working to fix it).

As a person who makes a lot of websites, there’s a very standard process I follow:

  1. Buy a domain name (through Hover)
  2. Set up an email account (Google Enterprise, Protonmail or Hover)
  3. Spin up hosting (Digital Ocean)
  4. Create either a static site or a WordPress install
  5. Install Google Analytics (GA)
  6. Spend too much time on design and front-end code tweaks

The second-to-last item stood out. Why haven’t I questioned this free tool I’ve been using? Yes, it’s free, but what is the actual cost? For GA, it’s free because the more sites its code exists on, the better picture of the entire internet Google has. By installing GA on our sites, we’re helping Google assemble data profiles of anyone and everyone that visits our sites, which can then be used for more targeted advertising (even if we don’t have ads on our own sites). So GA isn’t actually free – we just don’t pay for it upfront.

The other issue with GA is that the platform provides too much data. There are literally 100’s of screens of numbers and charts in their software and even though this is what I do for a living, most of it hurts my head. I talked to other people and they said similar: they use about 5% of what GA offers and try their best to wade through and ignore the rest.

This realization was troubling, so I started looking for alternatives. Yet alternatives were either too expensive, because they were enterprise-level (I don’t want to spend $99–499/month on analytics), or they were open-source and developer-focused, with too many features, hard to use functions and generally a pain for normal people. (And yes, I know about Piwik/Matomo, OWA, HotJar, Clicky, Gauges, Heap, GoSquared, StatCounter, Orbi, etc.)

Where GA and many other platforms focus on “here’s ALL THE DATA, go make sense of it”, which I don’t think is  all that useful to most people (Matomo/Piwik does a good job of providing too much data across too many screens). What would make sense would be along the lines of “here’s what this data actually means, and here’s how to make sense of it without a PhD in engineering!”. So less of a reliance on raw numbers and more on key wisdom from the numbers.

After a fruitless day of searching for a GA alternative that was simple, nice looking and easy to understand, I thought… what if I made something to solve for this problem? It would have to follow a few specific principles to work:

  1. Ownership and rights over the data by the website owner: nothing will be used by the business making the analytics software to further their hidden agenda, FOREVER (i.e. the software can’t be bought by say, Google, and then used for evil).
  2. User-centric privacy and rights: users will retain the right to opt out of being tracked or delete tracked data. To infinity and beyond GDPR!
  3. Simple, yet advanced: it should be equally easy to use by folks who just want to know what visitors to their websites are doing (or not doing) on their websites folks need deeper information like funnels, user journeys, etc, to see where they should make optimizations.
  4. Open-source and free: If someone wants to vet the code-base, see how it works, or offer suggestions, it should be completely available and transparent. Not to mention, if someone has the skill to install the software on their own website, they can do so for free!
  5. Hosted, for a small fee: If someone wants to use the software without having to install, maintain and update it, they should still be able to use it. This has the added bonus of creating a bit of profit, and profitable companies are more durable and able to last longer in a market.

This is by no means a new or novel concept.

For example, Ghost, does what they call “sustainable open source” which I heartily agree with. Open-source software is better because anyone can contribute great ideas to it, which leads to better software, which leads to people paying for the best (hosted) experience, which leads to generating revenue to hire better developers, and so on, in a circle. Scroll down here, you’ll see that circle explained in a better way. Ubuntu has a similar idea of creating a sustainable software product based on open-source code with their shape the future donation sliders (where people donate to the idea they want to see built). There are ways to build financially responsible and sustainable companies on freely distributed, open-source code.

I’ve partnered with Danny van Kooten to build this website analytics software, and we’ve called it Fathom. There’s no sales pitch to you, there’s nothing to buy (we are creating a hosted version that you pay for, but not for a while yet yet). For now, if this project seems interesting, hop on the mailing list at the bottom of this page which will help us somewhat gauge interest and share it with folks who you think could benefit from it. Or if you’re a developer: install it, contribute to it, star it or discuss it on our public GitHub repo.

Fathom is and will always have a free + open-source version, which is available today. I wanted to share this with you (even if you’re not a developer), because I think it helps illustrate a bigger vision for what the internet can be. An internet where we have greater transparency and better control over what data of ours is shared, with whom and how.

The internet exists for people. Yes, huge business co-opted that for a while, but I believe the tide is turning a tiny bit (and can turn a huge amount if we work at it). If the internet is ours, we should get to steer its future—let’s start by grabbing the wheel today.

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