Twitter is hot today with Instagram‘s TOS changes, which mark Facebook‘s intent to bring their acquisition more fully into line with their own policies and emerging business model. The company quickly jumped in with a clarification – so brief it can reasonably fail to get to grips with the issues at stake. What this signifies is yet another sampling of the underlying problem with mainstream social media platforms and their way of seeking to do business.
In a word, it is use consciousness. Users sign on to these services in a haze of enthusiasm and with at best a partial understanding of how it is that company XYZ intends to make a bunch of billionaires out of giving you free stuff. And no, it is not by magic.
As we know – and as Twitter has kept reminding us, somewhat painfully – it is considered OK by investors to get a service up and running without needing to have that question resolved – the 21st century version of 1990s dot-com eyeballs hopefulness. But there is not an indefinite number of ways in which this can be done. Three are obvious. Sticking ads in front of your noses. Grabbing a portion of your intellectual property. And messing with your private info. The first and the third may work together. The second and the third are subsets of the same thing – su casa es mi casa, as it were.
One of the great mysteries of our time is why none of these companies has taken a traditional commercial approach to the issues involved – and offered their services (search, social, pics, whatever) on subscription; and/or offered a fee to purchase or licence your stuff. Given the vast sums we pay every month to the telecoms who enable us to access all this “free” stuff, it is hardly as if we don’t give evidence of valuing the service.
But my core point: The uber biz model under which most of these web-based services are operating, and on which they have raised many billions of dollars from the wise/gullible/hopeful investment community and recruited hundreds of millions of subscribers, is that the user will be happy to live in the haze, signing endless consantly shifting TOS and privacy statements unread, and handing carte blanche to those who can turn their 0s and 1s into serious cash flow.
Here’s my take. Users will begin to wake up, in ever larger numbers. They will grasp that their increasingly quantified selves are traded in a human meat market. They will (as the Instagram imbriglio illustrates) really resent the notion that the work of their hands, brains and eyes is available to their new feudal masters to use as they choose. And whoosh, down will come the empires built on haziness and the naive and disrespectful assumption that users don’t care.
And so? Well, first, as I keep saying, the financing and governance of companies in the social space needs to be aligned with, um, well, the social space, and not the top-down awfulness that drove the steel barons a century back. But I am not holding my breath. Second, for the moment, we need the steel barons of our digital lives to do their users the honor of treating them like decision-making consumers and economic agents. Yes please, I want search; what’s the monthly fee to access it and retain 100% control of every ounce of data you get from my end? Yes please,.email; and what’s the extra perm month to add on the pic app?
What’s ahead? Huge advantage for Facebook-esque options (as barriers to entry keep falling and interoperability handles the network effect issue) that are run like Credit Unions with some form of mutual ownership and capitalization, and on the leading edge of socmed business. And, in tandem, fee-based services that leave us with our privacy and IP intact. And, of course, the option to sell, rent, lease all what we have, should we so choose.
The future is not life in the haze.