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Social Media Shouldn’t Be Free

If we want to be treated like customers instead of the product, we need to pay up

Craig Axford
Aug 12, 2018 · 9 min read
Credit: bayhayalet/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The old cliche “You get what you pay for” doesn’t always apply, but it usually does. The things we value typically come at a price because things worth having require effort to produce, use, and maintain. This is as true for physical products like laptops and refrigerators as it is for services like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

The current debate surrounding the deplatforming of Infowars demonstrates how wrong we’ve been to accept the services our social media platforms provide free of charge. In hindsight, we should have known that the ability to communicate and develop online relationships with people on the other side of the globe was going to come at a cost — even if that cost turned out to be more hidden than the usual direct hit to our wallets.

We are finally beginning to realize that we, the users of these platforms, were the product all along. The companies that developed the online services we use have to make money somehow. Collecting massive amounts of data that can be shared with advertisers and political campaigns is a pretty good business. (Unfortunately, it’s also amoral.)

When what is being mined is information about a platform’s users, it doesn’t matter if those users are clicking on fake news and nutty conspiracy theories or New York Times articles and science podcasts. The point is to gather the most information possible about the population by whatever means necessary and amplify exposure to the identified preferences. This includes vacuuming up all our weird searches and documenting our often unconscious bias for instantly gratifying, if frequently unedifying, content.

Madison Avenue knew that sex and other provocative messages moved merchandise long before social media came along. An internet consisting largely of free online services algorithmically amplifying our worst tendencies is an efficient delivery vehicle. When users are given the choice between a free TED talk and a free video depicting a guy shouting crazy theories into a microphone, the latter enjoys a disproportionate competitive advantage.

This should come as no surprise to those familiar with evolutionary biology. Alex Jones is the information age equivalent of the guy on the savannah shouting about a hungry lion lurking in the grass. The best TED lecture is like a story being told about a lion to a group sitting safely around the campfire.

Our current social media environment emerged as we were just beginning to explore the possibilities of the internet. As a result, it developed in an ad hoc fashion.

While everyone finds it difficult to resist the so-called clickbait, that doesn’t mean we won’t discover that the internet equivalent of the old campfire stories is far more satisfying in the end. We shouldn’t conclude that our innate tendency to gravitate toward instant gratification is evidence we find said gratification more meaningful in the long run.

Our current social media environment emerged as we were just beginning to explore the possibilities of the internet. As a result, it developed in an ad hoc fashion. Young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg were playful experimenters with a technology whose reach and power they couldn’t have foreseen. When Zuckerberg and his college roommate Eduardo Saverin created their social network, it was intended to extend no further than their fellow Harvard classmates.

But now Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media have achieved a scale and breadth that poses a threat to the very democratic institutions that gave them room to emerge in the first place. These services are freely available to anyone with access to a computer and a few dollars to give to an internet service provider each month.

This fact distinguishes social media networks from the books that entered mass production after Gutenberg invented his printing press in the 15th century. While books became considerably cheaper and more readily available in the decades that followed Gutenberg’s creation, they still required financial investment and a fair amount of time. Social media is a time suck, but the way it consumes our spare hours and attention is more fragmented.

Smartphone technology means we can easily engage with social media and other websites while waiting for our morning coffee, whereas a book requires us to commit to a degree of solitude and concentration. In addition, books and other nonelectronic forms of the written word don’t demand an immediate response. They are mediums that come with time to reflect and absorb their contents provided as byproducts of the technology.

Markets, if they are functioning properly, provide societies with the collective means to place a price upon the products and services people find meaningful. That’s why we still typically pay for books. Even our public libraries are financed through our tax dollars and donations. It is largely by avoiding these sorts of direct private and indirect public contributions that social media has been able to accumulate billions of users globally.

This huge population of “subscribers” gives the impression that the public values services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But since individuals are only asked to pay for such services if they have something to promote, it’s impossible to know how much the average user really values them.

Research shows it’s meaning, not happiness, that ultimately matters most when it comes to human well-being. According to a 2013 article in the Atlantic, those who report greater meaning but less happiness generally enjoy greater health than those who report happiness alone:

[Researchers] Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.

“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — “are about as good for you as adversity,” says Fredrickson.

Of course, just because social media is generally provided free of charge doesn’t mean it’s devoid of people who find meaning in it. However, if we accept the standard principles of market economics, these online services have far more people participating for hedonic or shallow self-gratifying reasons than would be the case if they came at a small cost.

But if we assume that, for the sake of argument, every user who now uses Facebook (or Twitter, YouTube, etc.) for free really does value the service the company provides, then these same people should be willing to pay some small charge for the continued privilege. If nothing else, as paying subscribers they would likely receive greater privacy protections and enjoy less exposure to unwanted advertising. After all, Facebook and other social networks would have an incentive to protect the personal information of users if these users suddenly became the primary source of revenue.

As customers instead of products, subscribers would be empowered to take a greater role in shaping the information they wish to view.

Fees to access social networks wouldn’t need to be exorbitant. A small flat fee or a charge of a few cents per post would generate billions in annual revenue, assuming companies like Facebook retained most of their current users following implementation. In Facebook’s case, even a 75 percent decline in active accounts could still easily generate $2 billion to $3 billion a month in revenue for the company without charging more than $5 a month per subscriber. Presumably, the remaining 25 percent would consist primarily of those who really appreciate the service and would, therefore, be less likely to post trivial, misleading, or derogatory material.

Social media companies may want to provide a means for low-income customers to apply for waivers or lower rates. Free or discounted access could also be provided to students or seniors. But even taking the time to apply for such benefits would demonstrate a willingness to invest effort into obtaining access. And requiring personal investment of any sort means that users would be, by and large, those who find social media truly meaningful.

Let us pause here to remark on a major recurrent dynamic that has shaped the course of attention industries: “the revolt.” Industries may have an inherent tendency to “nestle everywhere,” but when the commodity in question is access to people’s minds, the perpetual quest for growth ensures that forms of backlash, both major and minor, are all but inevitable… But the revolts can also take another, more dramatic form that is central to our story. When audiences begin to believe that they are being ill-used — whether overloaded, fooled, tricked, or purposefully manipulated — the reaction can be severe and long-lasting enough to have serious commercial consequences and require a significant reinvention of approach.

Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads

The impact to the social media world of a population of invested clients, as opposed to passive users, is difficult to predict, but it would certainly be profound. As customers instead of products, subscribers would be empowered to take a greater role in shaping the information they wish to view, instead of allowing an algorithm to make most of these choices for them.

Those seeking users’ attention would have to compete for it instead of simply purchasing data and targeting users with clickbait built around predetermined biases and interests. Advertising could be curtailed or eliminated altogether in such an environment, allowing for a greater focus on ideas, art, music, and quality video productions. People increasingly could log in to be inspired as well as to stay in touch with people they care about instead of feeling infuriated when they slam their laptop shut.

The first tentative invitations to invest in the media we want instead of passively accepting the media that’s been handed to us have already been sent. This article will first appear on Medium, which provides unlimited access for $5 a month and allows readers to “clap” for the content they appreciate. Writers posting on Medium share in a portion of the $5 fees the company collects from its members based upon the popularity of and engagement with their articles.

Arguably, the abundance of free news is one reason for the erosion in public trust the press has experienced in recent years.

Patreon is another example. As its name implies, Patreon is built around the old-fashioned idea of patronage, enabling creators to solicit funds from fans directly without having to seek corporate sponsorships or other means of support. Though no doubt most writers, artists, musicians, and podcasters using services such as these don’t make a living off them, they can at least supplement their income while producing the kind of content that actually enriches our culture instead of fueling conspiracy theories and rage.

Newspapers, too, are increasingly ending the misguided practice of providing their content for free online. They’ve learned the hard way that not asking readers to at least donate to support quality reporting cheapens their product. Arguably, the abundance of free news is one reason for the erosion in public trust the press has experienced in recent years. Our local, regional, and national news organizations do not exist on the same playing field as the crank on YouTube spouting his theories on what brought the twin towers down. However, when the products of both the conspiracy theorist and the reporter are available at no cost, this creates the illusion that each is worthy of our time and attention.

While writing of freedom in his revolutionary pamphlet the American Crisis, Thomas Paine reminded his readers:

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its good; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.

Both the means and content of communications in a free society have consequences for the preservation of that freedom. The ads bought on Facebook as part of the Russian misinformation campaign during the 2016 election are said to have cost only around $100,000. Services that rely solely on advertising for their revenue will inevitably be used for such purposes again. Indeed, they probably already are.

If ensuring that our social networks are serving us instead of undermining our democratic institutions or advancing other nefarious agendas isn’t worth a few dollars a month, then we should be asking ourselves why we’re wasting so much time on them in the first place.

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