Would social media be better if we paid for it?
'Free' comes with a cost: Advertising and the collection of your personal data
Information wants to be free — that's a founding premise of the internet.
Arguably, it's also at the root of some of the internet's greatest flaws. So, would paying for services like Facebook and Google, or their equivalents, make for a better experience? Maybe — but only if people would actually be willing to do so.
As we've seen over the last decade online, sometimes "free" comes at a cost. In place of charging fees, internet giants have made their profits another way — through advertising and the collection of personal data.
That has led us to where we are today: an ad-driven internet in which corporations snap up consumer data, misinformation runs rampant and privacy concerns abound.
The business model is targeted advertising. We learned that if you weren't paying for a service, then you were the product, and the company was making money off you: your attention, your eyeballs, your clicks and most of all, your data.
This meant all our online actions and interactions became a mechanism for the collection of data, which has had implications on everything from privacy to agency and our ability to make our own choices, and which essentially brings us to where we are now, with regulators trying to enforce antitrust laws to break up the massive corporations that have amassed so much user data.
Even Amnesty International has declared tech giants Facebook and Google human rights abusers.
But there could be another option. After all, it's not as though everything online is free.
Online subscriptions are booming
When it comes to music, books, and most notably, movies and television, online subscription services are booming, ushering in a new era of a pay-for-play internet. According to the research group Parks Associates, there are 271 online video services available in the United States. That means you could subscribe to a new platform for every day you went to work in a year, and there would still be more.
So why are consumers comfortable paying for video but not other online experiences? What would change if we paid for social media? And perhaps most importantly, would paying to use the internet really fix its problems?
While of late we have pivoted from questioning how much people would pay for a service like Netflix to debating how many video subscription services they might be willing to amass, it wasn't that long ago that analysts would have said a company was doomed to failure if it dared charge for use. Musicians and content creators were pushed to share content at no charge, and even news outlets needed to defend their decisions to put content behind paywalls.
A recent New York Times Magazine article provoked readers, "Online cesspool got you down? You can clean it up, for a price."
In the article, Kevin Roose writes, "Today's internet is full of premium subscriptions, walled gardens and virtual VIP rooms, all of which promise a cleaner, more pleasant experience than their free counterparts."
But while people may be willing to pay to watch Game of Thrones or The Mandalorian or to prevent annoying ads from interrupting mobile games, according to experts, there's little indication they would be willing to pay for Facebook or an equivalent, even if it meant they could control their own data or curb the rampant spread of misinformation.
'Subscribers are getting something'
In the successful paid models, "subscribers are getting something: access to a catalogue of films, games, TV series, books, etc. for a fixed period of time," says Dwayne Winseck, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. But with Facebook and Google, the "something" that users get is less tangible.
The best thing a platform like Facebook has going for it is the billions of people that use it, rather than any unique offering. Similarly, with Google — the search engine, not its many, many other data-gathering businesses — its offering is the content it can connect you with. It's hard to argue for paying for the intermediary even if, as some point, paying could resolve some of our biggest grievances with the social web.
Jaigris Hodson, an expert in digital culture and professor at Royal Roads University, says, "People don't seem to want to pay for content they feel is abundant or content they can get elsewhere."
Richard Macedo, a student in the master of arts in professional communications program at Royal Roads, studying this topic under the supervision of Hodson, says that from his findings, if you were to start charging for social media or a curation service, it would have to have some unique characteristic that individuals would value enough to be willing to pay for, in light of the multiplicity of media options online.
As a result, despite the best intentions of social platforms trying to make a go of it ad-free, if people aren't willing to pay for the service, its lifespan is limited. Indeed, that seems to be the track record for startups that have tried to compete in this space. The premise behind the ad-free, paid social network App.net was that if enough interesting people were willing to pay to be part of the elite app, others would follow suit. But who has heard of App.net?
Nonetheless, a handful of startups seem to be trying to leverage the popularity of the subscription model to build a more genuinely user-friendly social media experience.
Social media startups
MeWe is a self-described Facebook competitor, with nearly seven million subscribers. While the service is free, there is a "freemium model" where users can pay for premium features.
The company is making strides, having recently surpassed six million users, but continued growth in a saturated market is far from guaranteed, given what experts call "subscription fatigue."
Another new social app, Cocoon, created by two former Facebook employees, is described as a "private space for the most important people in your life." Imagine something akin to the online work-space Slack, but for your closest friends and family.
While downloads of the app are currently free, co-founder Alex Cornell tweeted that the company plans on monetizing with subscriptions, to avoid ads and "to ensure our incentives are aligned with the customer."
Meanwhile, Wikipedia's co-founder, Jimmy Wales, is hoping the online encyclopedia's model could work. Wales has recently launched a new upstart called WT:Social as a rival to Twitter and Facebook. Unlike those other platforms, however, WT:Social, like Wikipedia, will operate without the advertising that he blames for encouraging the wrong kind of engagement on social media.
Their website says the organization "wants to be different. We will never sell your data."
The catch is, to be competitive with those other platforms, WT:Social needs to attract and retain a large number of users, and to do that takes money. This week, Wales sent out an email to early subscribers saying, "I've been hoping that something like one in 200 people would pay — thanks to so many people's generosity, we are on track to hit this number. If you believe in our mission, and are able, please consider a subscription. The more people who are willing to pay, the faster we can improve the site."
Winseck predicts the audience for WT:Social "will likely be characterized by a specialized set of users, rather than become a general public meeting place."
Then there is the elephant in the room: the now-ubiquitous data-driven user experience. People may not like being micro-targeted by advertisers, but they do seem to like the customized online experience they get as a result.
Jeff Goldenberg, chief strategy officer at the digital marketing company Abacus, which designs ad campaigns for platforms including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, argues a platform that doesn't curate what you see based on your data can't compete in today's landscape. For example, he says, people are used to seeing the scores for their local sports team without having to scroll through all the day's games.
While users could theoretically have the ability to opt out of ads and still have their feed be algorithmically curated, he says, "a non-curated social network wouldn't be a very enjoyable experience for the users."
For now, anyway, the bottom line seems to be: People say they want social media to be run differently. But will they pay for it? That has yet to be seen.
- An earlier version of this story said social network MeWe charges about $6 a month for a membership. In fact, MeWe is a free service, though users can pay for premium features.Nov 27, 2019 9:02 PM ET
With files from Andrea Bellemare