Social networking is the Great Equalizer. It enables anyone to gain influence based on the merit of his or her conversations.
Sadly, the quest for sustainable monetization is leading social sites to offer schemes that let people with money buy influence.
It's a disturbing trend, and I'll tell you exactly why at the end. But first, let's check out some examples.
YouTube Super Chat
YouTube this week enabled a new feature called Super Chat.
It's a pay-to-pin feature, meaning that during live video streams (where comments can come and vanish in an instant) your dollars can fix your comment to the top. You participate by clicking on a dollar sign, then saying how much you want to spend. The more you pay, the longer you stay, for a maximum of five hours. Also: Your comment becomes a different color and can use more characters, so everyone can see that you paid. Channel owners get the money.
Spam, trolling and harassment can be policed and moderated in real time by the video creator, including banning users and blacklisting keywords.
Super Chat is already working on select YouTube channels and in 12 countries. It will be made available for more countries, creators and viewers by the end of the month.
Super Chat replaces Fan Funding, which was just a tip jar for users to contribute to their favorite YouTube personalities.
In other words, YouTube has moved from a system that let people contribute out of a desire to support a personality to one that lets them buy influence that others cannot afford.
Twitter promoted tweets
Twitter can be an enormously influential medium.
President-elect Donald Trump, who won the election in part by influencing the public through Twitter, once tweeted that Twitter is "like owning your own newspaper--- without the losses."
Some people gain influence on Twitter by the quality of their tweets or for other reasons, and most of the biggest users are singers, actors, comedians or professional celebrities, like Kim Kardashian.
But you can also simply buy influence on Twitter.
Your profile page has a "house ad" for influence buying under the label, "Your Tweet activity." When you click on the "View your top Tweets" link, you're taken to a dashboard of your tweets and comments that got the most engagement.
Each tweet or comment has a button labeled "Promote." By clicking on that button, you can choose how much you'd like to spend in exchange for Twitter giving that tweet far more reach and engagement -- and giving you far more influence than your follower count otherwise would give.
The main stream on Facebook for most users is the "News Feed," which is usually by default a tiny subset of the posts from people you follow. You don't see them all. Not even close.
Facebook famously uses algorithms to judge the News Feed-worthiness of posts, then gives you the posts that the algorithm concludes will interest you most.
Reversing that, most of the posts you make on Facebook are not delivered to the News Feeds of your family, friends, colleagues, customers and fans.
But they can be -- for a price. Facebook is happy to sell you advertising. The advertising system even lets you specifically target the objectives of more "Likes" or better engagement -- in other words, more influence.
On Facebook pages, in fact, every single post has a "Boost Post" button for buying influence.
App.net charged admission
An alternative social network called App.net shut down this week. And good riddance.
The social network initially charged admission, essentially making itself a private club for rich people with disposable income that excluded people without.
Wealthy elites loved the site for the same reason that country club members love country clubs; the price of admission keeps out the riff-raff.
Later, App.net softened its monetization policy to a kind of freemium model. But App.net's main benefit was always discrimination based on income.
Should social networks sell influence?
At first glance, the trend toward monetizing social networking by selling influence sounds harmless enough.
YouTube's blog post on Super Chat says the feature is a way for "fans and creators to connect with one another" and enables fans to "get even more of your favorite creator’s attention."
That sounds innocent enough. But let's look at YouTube comments in practice.
The reality is that everybody who posts on YouTube, Twitter or Facebook is doing so in order to reach people.
People want to convince people of a point of view. Sometimes that point of view is in opposition to another point of view. With YouTube Super Chat, the point of view backed by money wins. The rich get to be right and win the arguments.
We've already seen trolls buying ads on Twitter. In May 2015, one troll bought a $25 ad on Twitter urging transgender people to commit suicide. YouTube's Super Chat feature may prove attractive for trolls, especially given the low price of admission and especially for misogynists to target women, racists to target minorities and doxxers to target anybody. YouTube is leaving it up to the video creators to police and monitor Super Chat activity, but that can be hard to do when you're focusing on the making of a live video.
The pay for influence schemes simply transform social networks from a sphere where influence is earned through merit, for the most part, to one in which the rich can afford to influence and the poor cannot.
Different groups tend to have different levels of disposable income. Minorities, women, immigrants, young people, single people, rural people all tend to have less money. So in theory, they have less ability to buy influence on some social networks and so as groups have less influence on the national conversation.
The disparity in disposable income is significant within countries, but astronomical between them.
For example, in Australia, the national minimum wage is more than $13 per hour, which means to pay $5 for Super Chat influence priority costs an Australian earning minimum wage less than a half hour of work.
In the East African nation of Tanzania, the national minimum wage is 10 cents an hour, which means a Tanzanian worker at that wage has to work 30 hours to buy $5 dollars worth of influence. At $5, Super Chat influence is, in practice, beyond the reach of most Tanzanians.
The ugly truth about YouTube's Super Chat policy effectively means that Australians can easily buy influence and Tanzanians cannot.
The same goes for influence on Twitter and Facebook.
Is that how social interaction is supposed to work? Should social networks use monetization schemes to privilege already privileged groups and nations?
The right way to monetize social
YouTube's Super Chat is being compared in news reports to Twitch Cheering, which was introduced last summer. (Twitch is Amazon's live streaming video platform, mostly focused on gaming.)
The Cheering feature enables people to buy what are called "Bits," which can then be added to comments in the form of Bit Emoticons during live video streams. Bit Emoticons are animated and their size, color and shape are determined by the number of "Bits" used to pay for them.
The comparison between YouTube Super Chat and Twitch Cheering is a bad one. The reason? Cheering doesn't boost influence. The messages are treated the same as other messages, and scroll away as quickly as any others.
So Twitch is doing it better than YouTube, monetizing by allowing people who donate to display their donation along with their comment, without favoring that comment and making the commenter have a dominant position over other comments.
The traditional way to monetize both social and content is through advertising, a model that I believe is the most ethical way to monetize online. Advertising is egalitarian because those who cannot afford to buy the advertised products still get the content, interaction and influence free.
The tech site The Information charges a subscription fee to read. But I think that's fair, too, because it's just a product with a price -- readers don't gain an advantage in terms of influence.
I'm really interested in Medium's new direction. The long-form social blogging platform recently laid off staff and announced that its monetization model isn't working. Instead, the company intends to implement a new system where writers are rewarded "based on the value they’re creating for people." I don't know what that will mean in practice, but in theory it's the opposite of paying for influence. Medium participants instead should get paid for being influential.
There are many ways to monetize social sites. But I'm disturbed by the trend of selling influence and inequality as part of the business model.
Social networks used to provide a level playing field for admission and influence based on merit. And that's the way it should be.
Let's support the social networks that provide a level playing field for all voices -- not the ones that profit from inequality.
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