The purpose of a system is what it does.

–Stafford Beer, What is Cybernetics

MyFitnessPal’s announcement to the “community”

Yet another Software as a Service (SaaS) is hawking my own data back to me.

The nutrition tracker MyFitnessPal announced it’ll now cost $80/yr to scan barcodes—a service powered by a database crowdsourced from its dumb users (like me!).

But it’s ok—this is yet another software as a service (SaaS) company fulfilling its ultimate purpose: selling out its users.

The purpose of a system is what it does

So what does a SaaS company do? The typical lifecycle seems to be:

  • Build a software product
  • Attract new users and collect their data
  • Sell the software to BigCompany™
  • Destroy the product
  • Sellout users
  • Repeat.

Management cyberneticist and author Stafford Beer coined the phrase, “The purpose of a system is what it does” (POSIWID) to describe a system that may be at odds with its stated purpose.

A SaaS company is a system built to extract and sell user data.

The lifecycle of SaaS

This is as natural as a lion taking down an antelope: no malice, just the way things are. And there is a lot of value created along the way:

  • Users get to use a product while it exists
  • Employees of the SaaS get paid and gain experience

But that’s the deal: the only things that outlive the SaaS are the wealth created from the sale of user data and the user data itself.

Community is how they get you

It is beyond the scope of anyone’s imagination to create a community.

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great America Cities

For a SaaS to harvest my data, it has to convince me I’m part of a community.

Weather Underground did this well.

The Weather Underground attracted a devoted group of nerds (like me!) to its “Personal Weather Station” (PWS) network.

We bought our own weather stations and supplied the Weather Underground with data for free.

And later, the SaaS model did what it always does. Weather Underground sold to IBM and announced that to “enhance the relationship” with its users: you had to buy your own data back from them.

Now I am among the ham nerds sending data to the Citizen Weather Observer Program (CWOP) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Software as a Service as a lifestyle business

Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private.

– Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Maybe I’m näivé, but I believe many SaaS founders and employees enjoy solving problems for their users. And maybe they believe scaling up (by selling out) will ultimately help users.

But we could change this.

Instead of selling out their users, SaaS companies could opt to become lifestyle businesses.

We could celebrate companies who avoid endless scaling and instead focus on keeping their products working and their users happy.

Examples I can think of SaaS companies who care about their users:

  1. Pinboard
  2. NewsBlur
  3. Tarsnap
  4. Mullvad

Plenty of folk dream of opening a little bookstore or a quaint coffee shop—the kind with a lazy cat. Why not a cozy website? Seems viable. It could even have a lazy cat.