Thoughts on social media

On ello and tsu

The social media landscape is constantly changing, and there are two new entrants to the market causing a flurry of excitement and debate, and as such inevitably started to appear on my Google+ stream as I follow a number of social media experts and pioneers. The new entrants are called ello and tsu. In my opinion, it is a good thing that there are more entrants to the market, that there is more competition, and – to put it in a terrible exaggeration – that there are different visions for the future. At the same time, I am yet to see convincing reasons to create yet another account on yet social media platform.

The two new social media platforms project completely different visions: ello billed as ‘anti-Facebook’ in some media reports gives primacy to privacy by promising never to sell ads or data and will try to raise funds by charging for certain additional extras, whereas tsu is a revenue-sharing platform which emphasizes the role of the users of social media as content creators who should be remunerated. They are offering something that the main social media platforms do not as their main unique selling propositions, privacy in one case, money in the other: the question remains whether sufficient number of people will be tempted to create accounts. In the following paragraphs, I would like to ponder briefly whether privacy or money would be a sufficient incentive or not for people to create an account and even switch social media platforms, and also what would be the likely business model.

If someone were to ask me whether I agree with the statement privacy is important, then I would unhesitatingly answer yes, I agree, but I would demur if I were asked how much I would pay for privacy. There is a trade-off for using ‘free’ services, and most people are aware of that arrangement. I am happy to exchange information about me for certain services and benefits: this is true of online social media knowing what I have looked, shared, liked, recommended, and commented, as much as the store loyalty cards allowing large supermarkets to have comprehensive lists of what items I have bought at which branches in return for points. Incidentally, I am still hesitant about liking / recommending / +1ing things outside the landscapes of Facebook and Google+ respectively, and rarely do so. I do know some people who insist on cash transactions, never had any cards that accrue points, and never joined any social media platforms, but they are few and far between. It is somewhat tantalizing to see if such people would be tempted to create an account on ello.

I suspect that many people feel that companies are not interested in our individuals lives as such, or rather that they are only interested to the extent that they could sell something to us. While we may say privacy is important as a matter of principle, we are happy to trade it in practice in return for something that we value as evidenced by the number of people using social media, so privacy alone might not be sufficient incentive for people to create an account on ello and use it as the primary social media platform. Perhaps I am wrong, and it may turn out that privacy is very important to many people to the extent that they will be willing to pay to protect privacy or to use a platform with comparatively fewer features. As I am to understand, the basic account is free, and yet-to-be-determined extras will cost money. What are the pricing levels? Would they be set at a level people can afford and willing to pay? What will be the benefits for paying? Any extras will have to be perceived to bring good value for money, and offer things that other platforms do not offer for free, or be better than paid versions of other platforms.

Being paid for what we do on social media platforms sounds like an attractive proposition. People spend a lot of time creating content on social media platforms that bring in many visitors, but the monetary benefits in terms of ad revenue from the site where the content is user generated or sale of data to advertisers only go to the platforms, and not the users. This arrangement has been compared variously to sharecropping, serfdom, and villeinage. For many users though, this is a fair exchange: we can do things on social media platforms that we would not be able to do otherwise, such as connecting with friends and family, sharing pictures and videos, and just being social in the virtual world, but the platforms need to sustain and support the system, which costs money, and those costs will have to be covered in some way. As mentioned earlier, we exchange information about ourselves for services. Besides, many people would argue that they are not using social media for making money: it is for fun, being social, and being true to oneself, not commercial, it’s a party, not a Tupperware party.

My views are coloured by my long-standing participation in the AdSense forum, and I cannot see how the model is sustainable, when the users are essentially incentivized to have their content viewed, and when it is unlikely to provide the best possible ROI for advertisers. The account holders know that more people view their posts, the more money they will make, thus it makes sense to get as many pairs of eyeballs as possible on the posts by whatever means. The quality may not matter that much. In an attempt to draw in as many people as possible, account holders might be tempted to share things that they have not right to do so. From the perspective of advertisers, the quality of traffic from such a source may represent a poor ROI. Unless the quality is maintained reasonably high, and the quantity somehow managed, then the revenue per view for the platform and the account holders is likely to drop substantially. In other words, there is a vicious cycle: in an attempt to make more money, the more views the account holders will seek to obtain; the more views from motley sources there are, the less the quality of traffic thus the lower the ROI for advertiser; the lower the ROI, the lower the bid price thus the revenue for the platform and account holders; the less the revenue per view, the more urgency for more views to compensate for the lower revenue per view.

In the preceding paragraphs, I have questioned the business models and assumptions, but they are not the reason why I am not creating an account. A one-word answer would be laziness. A slightly more detailed answer would be that I do not see compelling reasons for me to create accounts on other social media platforms, when I am perfectly happy with Google+. And I do not have the time for others. As it is, I have accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest, most of them skeletal, dormant, or on their deathbeds, and I cannot see how I would be able to spend more time online. I am not some sort of social media expert, who needs to be at the forefront of the new and the exciting in a professional capacity, but merely a user, who on occasions advises others on how to use Google+ and comments on the landscape. Google+ has filled in a void that I had at the time when it was launched: if I had not drifted away from Facebook in the late 2000s, or found the meaning of life on Twitter, then I do not think I would have adopted Google+ as my online social media home. I like Google+, as I think it is a good platform, and I have met a number of interesting people, whom now I consider to be friends, but I can also see that other platforms such as Facebook for others can fulfil the same role as Google+ does for me. In a market that has matured, it is difficult for newcomers to establish a large market presence: Google+ has struggled, despite Google using its user bases in other product areas to promote Google+ very heavily. Unless there are really compelling and clear reasons, both ello and tsu will in all likelihood have to carve out a sufficiently large niche market for themselves.

It is not the future success or failure, however such is determined, of these two new social media platforms that I find very intriguing. It is the questioning again of the relationship between the platform and its users, whether the current predominant model where social media platforms are largely free to use in return for privacy and content genereated by the users is a model that people will feel comfortable with in the future. In this regard, ello and tsu are asking fundamental questions about the current social media landscape in different ways.

I wish ello and tsu well, because I believe competition and diversity are good, and status quo ought to be challenged, but unless Google+ ceases to be a comfy place for me, I will not be moving.