THE MARCH OF PROGRESS: Why a subscription based social network might be on the horizon.
Last Sunday I cleared out what my mother describes as my ‘memory box’ — a not insubstantial wooden box that sits at the bottom of my cupboard and contains a token or two from every stage of my life: a copy of The Times from the day I was born, early school reports, later school reports, first drawings, childhood valentine cards, teenage photos and newspaper clippings of former sporting glory. Going through its contents I settled into the state of pleasant nostalgia that keeping a memory box is probably all about.
Later that night, as I was going to sleep, I found myself thinking of Facebook. Ignore for a moment what it has become and think back and remember: Facebook WAS once cool. I pictured myself at 50 years old looking back through my own Facebook profile. Seeing myself age through my photos, amongst different friends and places. Except instead of these memories just being photos and snippets of paper collecting dust in the bottom of the cupboard they had links to a real person — or a representation of that person — and this memory box wasn't opened once every decade, it was accessible to everybody, at any time, and everybody’s boxes interacted with each other.
Facebook's golden-era — in terms of its user experience — probably fell sometime between 2009 and 2014. At that moment, amongst other things, the website felt in some way an embodiment of this notion of collective memory. Real life networks were manifested in an online space. Of course, people had their criticisms about this version of Facebook even then. The idea of framing your life through an online lens and the inevitable sense of display and contrivance that this invites will always be a topic for debate.
But compare such criticisms with those being levelled at Facebook now and they seem positively petty. Consider:
Reports of dangerous psychological effects on users
Trolling and the Alt-Right
Data mining and distribution
It all feels rather detached from the ‘frat-nerd’, intellectual property controversies that were depicted in the 2010 David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin film, ‘The Social Network’ (quietly becoming one of the most important films of the century — rewatch the last shot featuring Jesse Eisenberg compulsively refreshing Facebook waiting for a notification and marvel in the foresight.)
In that film, as the idea for ‘The Facebook’ begins to gain steam, Zuckerberg is portrayed as being primarily concerned with keeping the website ‘cool’. Conversely, the CFO — Eduardo Saverin — is more concerned about running ads and starting to generate revenue. In 2019 Facebook is certainly not ‘cool’, but it does generate a lot of ad revenue: combined with Google, Facebook now captures roughly 75% of digital ad spending in the United States and 99% of its growth. Ads are in fact what drives the platform’s entire user-experience. Facebook is primed, via computer learning, to keep us online for as long as possible, in whatever way possible, with the intention of maximising our exposure to ads.
The lasting negative impact of this policy on our brains and mental health has been the subject of much discussion. In 2017, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook — Chamath Palihapitiya — spoke to Stanford business students about the feelings of ‘tremendous guilt’ he harbours for his involvement in exploiting consumer behaviour. He went on to say: “The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
To give you an idea of the power that dopamine wields it is worth revisiting a Guardian profile of a company called ‘Dopamine Labs.’ Notably, dopamine was described by Ramsay Brown, the 28-year-old cofounder of Dopamine Labs, as ‘the molecule with a certain edge and sexiness to it in the cultural zeitgeist’ or ‘the sex, drugs and rock and roll molecule.’
The company itself develops a system that can be implemented into any app and is designed to build habitual user behaviour; using AI to rig reward-notifications to the exact point of randomness as to stimulate dopamine release. The power of dopamine-hacking was so immense that Ramsay Brown describes an anti-cyberbullying app they worked with seeing a “167% improvement in how often young people sent encouraging messages to one another by controlling when and how often and when we sent them an animated gif reward.” It seems, then, that dopamine could be used utilised more positively too.
In the period depicted in ‘The Social Network’, Facebook’s thinly-veiled tagline was “move fast and break things” but in 2017 they made an official change. Following an announcement at Zuckerberg’s Harvard commencement speech, Facebook’s mission statement now also describes a desire to “bring the world closer together.”
This is not the first time that Zuckerberg has detailed more humanitarian ambitions. In 2013 — towards the tail end of what I referred to earlier as Facebook’s golden era for user experience — Zuckerberg launched a charitable project that was aimed at bringing wifi to the whole world. Everyone should be entitled to free basic internet service, Zuckerberg argued. Data was, like food or water, a human right. The project existed online under the name internet.org and Zuckerberg made it clear that he was wasn’t motivated to earn a profit with the project, instead it was very much a moral imperative. At the time the idea was taking up earnestly by most. In hindsight, however, it shows the start of a pattern of behaviour in which Facebook’s main goal seemed to be about expanding their user base and then, most importantly, keeping them hooked.
In an article published last summer on WIRED, Jessi Hempel looks back on the internet.org project with a more discerning eye. The project functioned via an app which allowed internet access to a few key services — including, of course, Facebook. Human rights activist were concerned that while the app did allow access to variety of websites, Facebook was the ultimate arbiter of which ones were included. Facebook naturally had much to gain by centralising the web onto one platform. Rather mysteriously, in the following two years the project quietly dropped out of the public eye and was eventually abandoned entirely.
In the years since, the issue of companies prioritising ad revenue over user experience has plagued other social media platforms too. A sort of chronology emerges when the platforms are examined alongside each other:
Someone has a good idea for a website.
That idea becomes cool and its user base starts to grow.
The idea isn't yet profitable but the company has to start bearing costs.
The company decides that ads are the best way of generating revenue.
The platform becomes less about making something practical or cool and more about maximising the time users spend on it.
Ad revenue is generated. Then —> profit.
In the past two years Twitter has utilised similar methods to Facebook. Concerned about profit and the viability of their economic model, Twitter decided they needed to embrace ads more readily and in turn maximise the amount of time users spent on the platform. Users’ timeline had originally been neutral in the way they expressed information — featuring tweets in a solely chronological order. That began to be phased out in favour of an algorithmic ‘latest tweets’ feature — a more curated form of the service designed to more effectively grab users’ attention. Tweets that had been liked by accounts that users followed would now also show up on their feeds.
Instagram has also made similar changes. In June 2016, the platform started to place a greater emphasis on showing people more of what “they wanted to see.” Rather than a purely chronological feed users were now seeing more posts by the people they interacted with the most. Similarly, the order of the list of story viewers — which had also originally been determined chronologically — had since become based on engagement data taken from both Instagram and Facebook.
Moreover, as detailed in a CBS ’60 Minutes’ segment, Instagram started to employ a variable-ratio reward schedule designed to monopolise users’ time and keep them looking at ads. Instagram’s notifications algorithms would now occasionally withhold “likes” on users’ posts in the interests of delivering them later in larger bursts. Users’ dopamine centres have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond intensely to the sudden influx of social appraisal delivered later on. This system then utilises computer learning to optimise the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until they create habitual users.
Clearly, what gets our attention isn’t always the content that serves us best as people.
Given all these issues and the wealth of complaints from governments, pressure groups and individuals it begs the question — if people were paying for this service would they stand for it? If users were actually spending their own money on social media would they demand a more genuinely satisfying and healthy consumer experience rather than an experience that cynically exploits their psychological weaknesses to keep them hooked?
It has not gone unnoticed that people are increasingly willing to pay for services online. The New York Times has reported immense growth in its number of paying, subscribed readers. In the last quarter of 2016, subscriptions grew at the fastest pace since the launch of the pay-model in 2011. Moreover, upon inspection of the average revenue per user (ARPU) compared with advertising models such as Buzzfeed, the Times shows a total average revenue number 140x higher than the ARPU across Buzzfeed’s audience.
The numbers for the so-called big three of subscription services are even more gargantuan. Amazon Prime, Netflix and Spotify have roughly 100 million, 125 million and 71 million paying subscribers respectively.
The benefits of this model for the consumer are huge: companies are now incentivised to create newer, more compelling and more nuanced content all whilst improving software so it remains up-to-date and has clear competitive advantages. After-all, if they slip up why would the consumer continue to pay? It is hard to imagine Netflix recommending users a film like Roma in place of something short, addictive and easy to consume if it were relying on ad exposure to make money.
Advertising juggernaut and Google owned platform, Youtube, also seems to be heading this way. Youtube RED allows users to subscribe to remove ads and have access to exclusive content from some of its most famous creators.
Similarly, some subscription-based social media platforms, although still small, are beginning to pop up. ‘Life Management Tribe’, created by actor Romany Malco is a ‘positive self-help social network’ that is devoted to maximising personal and professional growth. The website features a podcast, a timeline, profiles and a shop. There are various subscription levels that charge different amounts including titles ranging from ‘Tribe Member’, ‘Warrior’, ‘Chief’ all the way to ‘Pharaoh’.
Of course, for all of the shortcomings that an advertising model brings, subscription services have their own such issues too. As soon as users are paying for a service there is the problem of accessibility. Scott Galloway, a professor of Marketing and Brand Strategy at the NTY Stern School of Business, explains the issue well in a Bloomberg 'Masters in Business’ podcast, suggesting that advertising essentially amounts to a “tax on the poor” and subscription services mark another privilege of the middle-classes.
Still, one might assume there is a market out there for the elements of Facebook that we have forgotten we used to enjoy. A place to put photos, share memories, connect with people and curate a digital version of your own history. Something akin to my memory box, perhaps.