Social media refuseniks had a point all along

I quite like social media. I enjoy how Facebook connects me with friends and I love the way Instagram has uncovered artistic ability in people who never imagined themselves having any. I appreciate how Twitter can be very funny on a good day. Its ability to speak truth to power should also never be overlooked.

WhatsApp groups can promote a sense of community: our family group, for example, spent hours last month helping my son to make chicken soup for his sick wife. I was in Toronto, my daughters were in New York and Paris and all of us were leveraging the technology behind the app to help produce a pan of Jewish penicillin in London. None of us has yet been targeted by poultry sellers sneakily exploiting our fondness for chicken. I suspect my innocuous activity provides lean pickings for the commercial and political interests that feed off these products.

But, fun aside, this has been social media’s annus horribilis. The key flaw underlying this descent to ignominy is, I believe, the free-to-user model, whose consumers are unaware that, as the saying goes, “they are the product”. It has taken a while for naive idealists like me to realise that no-subscription services are anything but a gift.

Two years ago this week, I interviewed someone who suggested a solution for the online world to realise its early promise. I failed to grasp the significance of what he was saying and never wrote the interview up. But I came upon it on a flight last week while clearing files from my laptop.

The interviewee was a Riyadh-based billionaire, Ayman Hariri, a son of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister assassinated in 2005. Mr Hariri was publicising a new social media app he had founded, Vero, which promised “no ads, no algorithms and no data mining”. But because it was a paid-for platform, and perhaps because of Mr Hariri’s background and Vero being a Saudi company, I considered it little more than social media for the privileged rich, so of only limited interest.

But one line he used now strikes me as a template for the way things may need to be in future. “The subscription is there to keep us honest,” he said.

How important that now seems. And although I never used it or know anyone who has, by all accounts, Vero is doing well. As is Idka, a Swedish social app with a similar ethical proposition. Slack, an app used primarily for business colleagues to collaborate is, like LinkedIn, also paid for by users of all but the most basic version.

A service that does not slyly pretend to be free seems more wholesome, somehow, than the discredited free model. When social utilities are candid about being commercial entities, the covert shenanigans involved in monetisation are unnecessary.

The emergence, which I think will gather momentum, of more paid-for social and business collaboration platforms is an odd inversion of the idea that free-to-user equals virtuous.

But if there is to be a social media theme over coming years, it may be the one Ayman Hariri spotted ahead of time. It is arguably a sad outcome, but it may be the only response to a world where there is a sizeable minority of dishonest and exploitative individuals and businesses. I would expect to see the emergence of paid-for search, browsers and email for the same reason. It is as if we live in a once safe village where people are now starting to lock their doors.

The feeling is already growing demonstrably that paying for useful or entertaining stuff online is a better way to live than trading your attention and privacy. As a prominent US digital marketing figure, Bob Gilbreath of Cincinnati-based Ahalogy, pointed out in an article last year: “The hottest topic in the media business right now is the unexpected growth in paid subscriptions.”

One thing puzzles me about the time it has taken — a generation — to realise that the Garden of Eden quality of the early internet would go bad.

It is that, so far as I can tell, no expert foresaw it. I have long searched for a cautionary voice from the 1990s warning that the free model would end in tears.

All I can recall are various friends and family, who from the moment they heard of Facebook and other social media have had nothing to do with any of it. In some cases, this disparate group of refuseniks would mutter about privacy, but it seems to have been more a visceral distrust rather than a considered position. Yet they were probably right, and those of us who to this day co-operate across oceans on “free” apps to make chicken soup, are probably still lacking in wisdom.

 

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