Wired is Wrong: The problem with social media isn’t ads, the real problem is right there in the name

This morning wired published an article titled YES, BIG PLATFORMS COULD CHANGE THEIR BUSINESS MODELS which argues that ad driven business models are the root of all evil online. The article argues

The few companies that control our digital public sphere — Facebook, Google, and Twitter — are all driven by the same fundamental business model, and it has only grown more pernicious over time. To microtarget individuals with ads, today’s platforms massively surveil their users; then they use engagement-juicing algorithms to keep people onsite as long as possible. By now it’s clear that this system lends itself to authoritarian, manipulative, and discriminatory uses: hiding job openings from minorities and older people; discouraging certain groups from turning out to vote; and allowing anyone with even a small budget to find audiences that are, say, anti-Semitic. It also creates an environment conducive to viral misinformation and hate speech

This article conflates three very different things;

  1. Algorithms that favor content that users like to click on, watch or interact with on social media
  2. Viral misinformation and hate speech speeding on social media
  3. Micro- targeted ads shown to users who spend time on social media

The core premise of the article is that #1 & #2 wouldn’t exist if we got rid of #3. The article suggests users paying for social media will address the social problems these platforms have created. This is an argument that should be familiar to those who’ve read Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants and is popular within certain circles in Silicon Valley.

A Social Media World Without Ads

For the sake of argument let’s assume we got rid of ads on social media such as Twitter, Facebook & YouTube. Would these services also get rid of their news feeds which show users the most useful and engaging content? That sounds extremely unlikely especially as users are now paying for that content so the services are incentivized to get users to spend a lot of time on their services to justify their subscription. In fact we have an existence proof of this as Netflix uses engagement algorithms to keep you binge watching shows and considers sleep their biggest competitor. Essays have actually been written about The Corrupt Personalization of Netflix.

This isn’t hypothetical as YouTube Premium exists, a subscription version of the site without ads. Are people who pay for the site suddenly seeing a site free of all of the content which is radicalizing far-right extremists, content that’s misled basketball players into believing the earth is flat or videos claiming vaccines cause autism? Nope.

And let’s not forget WhatsApp, a social app where viral misinformation has led to 33 deaths in 69 incidents of mob violence which as Facebook’s former Chief Security Officer points out has no ranking model, no ads and no subscription revenue .

People Forget the Media in Social Media

When I use the word media, I use this definition

MEDIA (noun): the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers,magazines, and the Internet, that reach or influence people widely

Social media like newspapers, radio and television before it is the latest ground breaking way to reach and influence millions of people with a message. However unlike other forms of media, there are no gate keepers. Newspapers have editors. Radio and TV shows have producers. Social media just favors whatever people find interesting to consume regardless of the type of content or who it is from.

This isn’t to say other forms of media haven’t had similar races to the bottom with regards to quality of content or hate speech, see tabloids, reality TV & Fox News and shock jocks & talk radio for examples. However the lack of gate keepers on social media has dialed it up to 11.

This is the real problem, not ads. If anyone can reach everyone with a message, then eventually anyone will include people whose message we find disturbing.

“Free Speech” as a Business Decision

A lot of the major social media companies have used the specter of “free speech” to justify their reluctance to act as gatekeepers or to police content on their sites.

However I’m often reminded of this quote from Hunter Walk’s essay on the quest for software margins and it’s impact on the valuation of these public companies

So if you believe that in order to access growth capital and consistently trade at a high multiple as a public stock a company needs to maintain the margin-profile of a best-of-class software company, what might be the tradeoffs?
Well, maybe you focus engineering efforts disproportionately on growth and revenue-generating projects. And perhaps you see Sales & Marketing as necessary but every other non-product function — Policy, Customer Support, HR — as margin sucking cost centers.
Could Facebook, Twitter and YouTube spend more money on faster responses to abuse reports, more accurate content review tools, better ethics training for engineers, more manual investigations of identity theft and fraud? Sure. Would these lead to better products despite being fundamentally non-scalable? We can debate whether the answer is between “partially” and “substantially” but the impact would certainly positive.
Will we find that there were types of technology businesses which we thought had “software margins” but were understaffing customer support, content moderation, and policy enforcement because managing a global social network is just fundamentally different than selling expense software into the Fortune 500?

One can argue the merits and demerits of a “free speech” approach to social media but one can’t deny that it is way cheaper for a company to simply let anyone publish anything than it is to ensure that the content they are generating isn’t toxic to their online community or the world at large.

Getting rid of ads won’t change that dynamic, in fact it would just make it worse.

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