2024-02-22 4 min read

At your service.

At your service.
"Service telephone," Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1910-1920. Image via the Library of Congress.

Earlier in my career, if someone said the word “service,” I would contrast it in my head with a “product.” Let’s say in this context that a product is a fungible thing, maybe sitting on a shelf, maybe designed and prototyped but not yet manufactured or assembled for sale. Either way, a product’s qualities are predetermined, defined by its seller; it is an instance of some platonic ideal, a thing with a clear (if not yet physical) shape. If I buy a product and it breaks, I can return it or exchange it or at least shake my fist at its manufacturer as I drag it to the landfill. 

In contrast, a service is something that someone does, its qualities often defined by the customer and acceded to by the seller. A service exists for some period of time, then ceases to exist. I don’t pay a general contractor for a house per se; I pay them to spend time building a house. There are lots of scenarios where you might pay a person (a contractor, or a realtor®, or someone who sits on the planning board and who also owns a restaurant that you happen to tip *very* well at) a small fortune for their services, and never see any change in the world around you. Sometimes that's unanticipated, but sometimes a lack of action is the whole point of the service; when the customer defines what’s being purchased, sometimes the answer is “not very much.” 

This disturbed me. This earlier version of me – the one thinking of products and services – was hoping to move himself into a product-focused environment, with its clear deliverables and arms-length customer relationships. These hopes have mostly been unfulfilled, though to be fair that’s partly because my own understanding of services has evolved with the rise of the phrase “x-as-a-service,” and the general trend towards business models based on recurring revenue. I no longer work as a contractor, and I don’t exactly have client meetings, and I don’t think I’ve ever had to redo a piece of work because a reader didn’t approve of it. And yet my business model is fundamentally based on a recurring service – on showing up in your inbox on a regular basis and presenting whatever fruits of my labor I’ve managed to come up with that day. It is my occupation to provide curiosity-, personality-, and some degree of inbox-clutter-as-a-service.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with you. Many of you have been reading my writing for a decade – longer than I’ve known all but my closest friends, and longer than any job I’ve ever held. I have personally written – gosh – something like four hundred emails to some of you; many unopened, I’m sure, some skimmed over coffee. Maybe eyes scanning from link to link, maybe looking for key words or section headings to spark your interest. Maybe reading between the lines to understand me, even in the places where I might fail to understand myself.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a weird thing, our relationship – me here, at your service in a way; you doing whatever you do.

That's all, I think 😉

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