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Can we solve an eternal problem in the next year? Or ever? How?
Count the number of companies you pay regularly for anything. Add up what you pay for all of them. Then think about the time you spend trying and failing to "manage" any of it—especially when most or all of the available management tools are not yours. They are provided separately by every service provider’s own self-biased subscription system, or by Amazon, Apple, Google, Roku, and other siloed intermediaries. You have to manage them too.
Now think about how all of us are swimming upstream constantly against a tide of promotional BS and manipulation—all just to keep steady money flowing from our pockets into corporate banks.
For more stories on how subscription systems are out to screw you, read David Lazarus’ Canceling a service shouldn’t be this difficult, my own One example of how subscriptions suck, or just look up subscription hell.
All of those search results are for sellers of services that help enterprises “target,” “acquire,” “buy,” “manage,” “control,” and “lock” subscribers into systems that treat them like slaves or cattle. (As those verbs imply and those links demonstrate.) None are ways for you to manage them.
This industry will not fix itself. It will only make the whole mess harder to fix because at best all its B2B customers will only try to make subscribing easier for you to do—in as many different ways as there are services for you to subscribe to.
As for subscription services you or I could hire (e.g. Truebill, Billbot, Bobby, Money Dashboard, Mint, BillTracker Pro, Trim, Subby, Card Due, Sift, SubMan, and Subscript Me), none of them (as far as I know) give you a way to manage all your recurring expenses from one dashboard that is yours and not theirs. And by yours, I mean they are substitutable in the same way browsers, email clients, and apps such as spreadsheets and word processors are substitutable. You should be able to manage all your subscriptions with product A or swap that one out for product B.
You also won’t get much help from the subscription management systems offered by Paypal, Amazon, Apple, Google Sheets, and Google Doc templates. Your only useful tool so far is a spreadsheet. (And maybe there are macros one can help. If so, I’d love to hear about it.) That’s what I use, and it’s clunky as hell.
To sum up the situation, existing choices are too narrow, too closed, too exclusive, too easily purposed for surveillance of subscribers, too vested in the status quo, or all those at once. Which royally sucks. For evidence, see
So clearly it's long past time to unscrew subscriptions. But how?
The better question is where?
Because the answer is on our side: the customer's side.
See, subscriptions are a class of economic problems that can only be solved from the customers' side. They can't be solved from the companies' side because they'll all do it differently, always prioritizing their interests over ours.
Also, most of them will want to hold you captive, just like Compuserve, AOL, and Prodigy did with online services before the Internet solved that problem by obsolescing them.
A refresher on that point: the Internet is ours. Meaning everybody's. It doesn't just belong to platforms and other service providers.
Subscriptions should be as easy to make, change, and cancel, in standardized ways. Having those ways will make companies living on subscriptions do a better job of making their goods competitive. We’ll have an intention economy that rewards services for being good and not just because they’ve trapped customers.
Now to how.
The short answer is with open standards, code, and protocols. The longer answer is to start with a punch list of requirements, based on what we, as customers, need most. So, we should—
Be able to see all our subscriptions, what they cost, and when they start and end
Be able to cancel or renew, manually or automatically, in the simplest possible ways
Get the best possible prices
Be able to keep records of subscriptions and histories
Show our actual (rather than coerced) loyalty
Be able to hear constructive help from customers
Join in collectives—commons—of other customers to start normalizing the way subscriptions should be offered on the corporate side and managed on the personal side
Some tech already exists for at least some of this, but we'll leave that topic for another post. Meanwhile, give us suggestions.
Bonus link: From coffee to cars: How Britain became a nation of subscribers, by Tim Lewis in The Guardian. (Via John Naughton's excellent newsletter.)
The modified image above is a Doctor Who TARDIS console, photographed by Chris Sampson, offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license, published here, and obtained via Wikimedia Commons, here. We thank Chris for making it available.