How much is Facebook worth?
If you have an account and were asked to put a price on a monthly service fee, how much money would you pay to be inspired, to keep up with news events, or to stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues?
You’re paying for it now, of course, though not with money.
Rather, we’re all paying in terms of constant surveillance and the privacy invasion it entails, as services such as Google, Facebook, Twitter et al. track us, profile us, analyze our moods, or even play around with manipulating our emotional states in the world wide weird of the web.
The father of the pop-up ad (which he described as the internet’s “original sin”) and author of a thoughtful article in The Atlantic is Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.
Zuckerman describes an internet where corporations mine for information on users’ viewing and buying habits so they can target advertising, while governments such as the US have become data junkies, voraciously feeding on internet data with surveillance habits that have spun out of control.
The current state of surveillance and tracking wasn’t what was intended, he says.
Nor does the advertising-based model that drives the data feeding frenzy of services we use have to be this way.
Former US Vice President Al Gore puts it this way:
We have a stalker economy.
This is how our stalker economy started, Zuckerman says:
In the internet’s infancy, 1994 to 1999, he worked for Tripod.com, one of the first webpage-hosting providers and what he called a “proto-social network.”
Making money to fund it was a dilemma.
The company tried dozens of business models, each one accompanied with a “shiny new business plan” to sell it.
The business model that got Tripod.com funded in the end was advertising, while the model that got it acquired was analyzing users’ personal homepages so as to better target ads to them.
There was a problem with ads placed directly on pages, however: advertisers worried that the page’s content would be associated with their brand, Zuckerman says:
Specifically, we came up with [the first pop-up ad] when a major car company freaked out that they’d bought a banner ad on a page that celebrated anal sex.
To put some distance between cars and content, Zuckerman says he wrote the code to launch a separate window that would feature an ad.
Thus was born what he rightly describes as “one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit”: the pop-up ad.
He regrets this:
I'm sorry. Our intentions were good.
Beyond the phenomenon of pop-up ads, the revenue model of advertising to fund our services took root, instead of expecting users to hand over credit cards or pay with online workarounds (PayPal hadn’t yet been invented).
On the plus side, Zuckerman says, a web supported by advertising grows quickly and is open to those who can’t, or won’t, pay.
But he sees four downsides:
- Advertising without surveillance is possible in the world of print newspapers, but it’s hard to imagine with the current state of digital delivery. After all, the biggest benefit of online ads is the ability to see who’s looking at an ad. Just the act of paying for advertising online creates the need for surveillance, if only to eliminate click fraud. Beyond that, the lousier results you get from online ads, the more incentive for online services to hone their targeting and promise to do better for their advertisers than the competition.
- Clickbait. It’s an Upworthy kind of world, where the importance of generating pageviews and mouse clicks are causing digital news outlets to push out content that entices us to click, rather than helps us to think and to make informed decisions.
- Diversity of content suffers as online companies try to maximise their advertising reach. Facebook’s acquisitions of What’s App and Instagram typify this issue: as more content sources become centralized in the hands of fewer parties, their decisions to ban certain types of speech has ever greater repercussion.
- Online services are feeding us content that supports our existing biases. Personalization of content that matches our interests and our tastes leads us into ideological isolation instead of discourse with those who hold opposing views.
How do we free our personal data from the hands of an internet that hasn’t figured out how to live without it?
Paying for services such as Facebook and Twitter is one possibility Zuckerman suggests, pointing to Pinboard.in, a bookmarking service for which each user pays a one-time fee that rises a fraction of a cent with each new sign-up.
That model has kept the site profitable since its launch, all without advertising or the sale of data to third parties – revenue streams it’s sworn never to dip into.
Such a world would require rethinking forms of payment in order to avoid ostracizing those who don’t have credit cards or who can’t afford transaction fees.
One such system could be something like Stellar, a digital currency project that, if it takes off (a big if), could usher in micropayments of a fraction of a cent to pay for content or for the operations that work to bring us that content.
Zuckerman says that all this is at least an invitation to dream about, or even to create, a web that works very differently than the one that grew up around the original sin of advertising.
In fact, now, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the web this year – or, technically, the 25th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s first draft of the first proposal for what would become the world wide web – we have the opportunity to rethink how the web could be restructured into something other than a stalker economy.
A campaign called The Web We Want is part of the web’s 25th anniversary celebration – an invitation to open up to the world a dialog about how the internet is now governed and structured and might be reimagined.
Zuckerman says that rethinking the revenue model is an important part of that puzzle:
I think it's at least as important to consider how we want the web to make money, as these decisions have powerful unintended consequences.
And again, it all brings us back to questions like this:
How much is Facebook, or Google, or Yahoo, or Twitter – or whatever online service you now get for the price of your privacy – worth?
Would you pay a subscription price for content you see on Facebook, for example?
Take Humans of New York, a Facebook page that brings stories of perfectly normal, perfectly extraordinary people from around the world.
I would pay for that particular content happily.
I’d pay for it in exchange for two things: my privacy, and for verifiable assurances that the surveillance has stopped.