The 1 Change That Will End Toxic Social Media

Social media was designed with explicit ill intention to addict people. Every media company wants their media to be seen and consumed. But social media is not a media company. Facebook is not in the business of media creation like a magazine publishing house or TV network. Facebook is in the business of consuming as much time and attention from its users as possible so that this time and attention can be auctioned off to advertisers. That is the only way Facebook makes money right now and making this money requires addicting users so that they stay on for longer and longer periods of time.

Knowing that there is a high potential for excessive use, why doesn’t Instagram (or Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, etc.) provide an in-built clock with an option to block yourself after a certain time? It is not currently in Facebook’s financial interest to allow users to limit their own time on the platforms. Apple, however, does not make money on ads. Apple makes money on selling phones and computers. And Apple rolled out ScreenTime on iOs years ago. Sure, Apple cares about how you use their product but quite simply, once you buy an iPhone, it’s no skin off their back if you keep it in a drawer and never use it.

Yes, magazines and TV have ads too. But it comes down to the business model. Social media, for now, is completely free to its users. Magazines, even with ads, have a subscription fee or they cost $5 at the checkout stand. Cable TV is not free. However, some channels are free and radio is “free.” In many countries in Europe and other places in the world, owning a television or radio requires a yearly license fee. The fee supports channels and stations in whole or in part. Why not have something similar with social media?

All electronic media started as free from print to phones to radio to TV. Then, the phone and TV companies figured out that they could charge subscriptions for phone services and television, and now we pay for cable TV which has given way to Netflix and streaming services, which all still use a subscription model. And sure, Netflix autoplays their videos so it’s easy to keep binge watching. But the longer you watch Netflix doesn’t directly increase Netflix’s revenue like it does for Facebook and other social media networks. When you pay your Netflix subscription fee, Netflix gets paid whether you watch for an hour each month or 100 hours each month.

Another example is the New York Times. The Times started selling online subscriptions in 2011. The business floundered for a few years and then suddenly, business was booming and ad revenue sky rocketed. The exception is a current decline in ad-revenue due to the pandemic. However, the Times is focused on growing digital subscriptions and decreasing reliance on ads. How is it that the digital subscription model works so well for the New York Times when people are so used to 99% of the internet being free?

A few very interesting things happen when a paywall is put up. The first and most obvious thing is that readership drops off in the beginning and this is to be expected during a transition. When a paywall is put up, it forces consumers to decide if the value they are getting from the content is worth their money. We treat our time and attention as if it’s cheap but the value of money is more concrete to us. So when people became forced to pay for access to NYT online, they had to decide if it’s worth their money and if they decide that the Times is not worth their money, then the New York Times is forced to step up their journalism game.

We treat our #time and #attention as if it’s #cheap and #socialmedia companies take advantage of that

I see this as a very good thing. Even if the New York Times failed it would be a good thing because that is how capitalism works. Either you provide enough value to stay in business and make money or you don’t. Turning Facebook and Instagram into a subscription model would force users to become actual customers because currently the advertisers are the real customers. From there, the users, now the customers, would need to decide if paying $X/month for Facebook is worth it. Right now, I don’t think the content on social media is worth it. There are undeniably good things and good content on social media but so much of it is filled with hate and vitriol and outrage and arguments over stupid things for stupid reasons. The average user knows it’s a waste of time more than anything else. Perhaps others would disagree with me and people would gladly pay for Facebook and Instagram in its current state but we can’t know either way until Facebook tries it out for a couple of years.

Either you provide enough value to stay in #business & make #money or you don’t. Turning FB, #IG, #Twitter, etc into a subscription model would force users to make a choice about the #value of social media

If people do not believe that paying for social media in its current state is worth it, then the content would need to improve. How could this happen if, unlike the NYT, Facebook does not make the content on Facebook and Instagram?

The platform would need to somehow incentivize the users to create content that people are willing to pay for. Facebook would need to become more like Patreon, but perhaps instead of people subscribing to individual creators, they will subscribe to Facebook as a whole and content creators will receive a financial kickback, much like with affiliate marketing, for attracting users to the network. Content creators would then receive a fee based on how many people look at their content specifically and for how long.

But I don’t see that being much healthier than what we have now. So perhaps there could be a token system that equates to real money. Your monthly subscription would equate to a set number of tokens and if someone sees something you post, rather than liking it, they give you a token. “Likes” in their current form are essentially meaningless but tokens linked to real monetary value would totally change that. People would not be giving out tokens just for low-value content with the same way they do with likes, especially if at the end of the month, they could cash out their tokens for themselves or donate them to a verified nonprofit account instead. In order to earn money, the content would need to provide some value to the other users or at least be going to a worthy cause.

This is one of the very things I like about Reddit, for all it’s faults. Just like any other social media platform, Reddit has its fair share of nastiness and fighting but I find this to be limited due to human moderators and community guidelines. Furthermore, Reddit is already implementing a version of using tokens on their site. Yes, the site is still free (with the option to subscribe) but if a user contributes a post or comment that is deemed by another user to be of value, users can give and receive “awards” on their posts. Most awards don’t do anything except the gold award which grants the recipient with 1 month of free Reddit Premium. This makes me optimistic that Facebook and other social media platforms could go behind a paywall, change to a subscription model, and still have users creating content that attract other users to the platform.

According to Jaron Lanier, throughout the development of technology in the US, the tech industry simultaneously upheld two opposing virtues. On the one hand, a free and open source internet was championed as a great equalizer. On the other hand, the god-like tech entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs were celebrated. The issue is that entrepreneurs don’t make money by giving things away for free. That’s where the advertising model comes in. The platform is free for the users and the money comes from advertisers who are the true customers. Since the advertisers are the real customers of social media, they want to see that users are on the platform for longer and more often therefore, the social media platforms will do whatever it takes to keep the users glued to their screens and this is how widespread social media addiction happens. Even after nearly two decades in business, the social media companies have not given users a fair chance to become customers and to let us vote with our dollars rather than the advertisers.

I agree that the internet has become an equalizer of sorts; there is so much information out there for free, some of it true and useful and some of it worthless or false. So I understand any objections that Facebook becoming a subscription would create some inequality among people. The stringent capitalist in me says that’s just how the world works and that if people want Facebook they should be willing to pay for Facebook otherwise Facebook isn’t as essential as it seems to be with how much time people spend on it and then Facebook would die as a business.

If people want #socialmedia they should be willing to #pay for it otherwise it isn’t as #essential as it seems.

But I also see a way around this problem that allows people to use Facebook without paying the subscription fee as well. Obviously, some people, more than we may initially think, would be paying the subscription fee but if someone couldn’t afford that or didn’t want to pay for it, then they could have an account for free but with limited functionality, the same way the New York Times allows non-subscribers to read up to 3 free articles per month. Then if a person on the free account contributes content to the platform that others deem valuable by awarding tokens, they then have the ability to earn money through the platform, perhaps even enough to “pay” for the monthly subscription fee or unlock the additional features and then some. I see this business model as something extremely positive. Rather than focusing on gaining popularity for popularity’s sake, users who upload content would be forced to think in an entrepreneurial way by asking themselves, “Is what I’m posting bringing value to my audience?” The emphasis would be much more on giving to other users rather than trying to climb to the top of the social hierarchy.

The last thing that happens when media companies transition to a subscription model is very counterintuitive and yet beneficial for both the platform and the advertisers. A subscription model when done correctly automatically leads to a better pool of potential buyers for advertisers because in order to afford the subscription based model, people must have a certain level of disposable income. As an advertiser, this is a very good thing because you don’t want to be advertising your product to people who have very little money to spend but lots of time to waste on Facebook and Instagram because the algorithm has gotten them addicted. My hypothesis is that conversion rates would increase for advertisers marketing on these platforms. Perhaps on Instagram and Facebook, tokens could be used to make purchases in the shopping page. In keeping with the NYT as an example, transitioning to a subscription model helped to increase their ad revenue after the initial drop when first transitioning (again, with the exception of a decrease in ad-revenue due to the pandemic).

The only downside (or perhaps an upside) I see to this is an increase in competition among social media networks. This new business model could (and I think should) be applied not just to Facebook and Instagram but also to TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube. However, users would really have to examine how many platforms, if any, they’re willing to pay for and which ones. Just like with streaming services, not everyone can afford Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO, ShowTime, Prime Video, and AppleTV. So consumers have to pick their favorites.

I’d like to imagine that this new business model would improve many of the current problems we have with social media such as the rampant outrage and mental health issues. For example, if a user is spewing racist sentiments on a platform with this new business model, rather than those thoughts being amplified by the algorithms which happens with all emotionally charged content that grabs people’s attention, that user would (I dearly hope) not be earning any money/tokens from the broader community. The lack of tokens would signal to the new and improved algorithms that the content is not valuable. As of right now, engagement is the most valuable metric according to the algorithm so if people get into fights in the comments, the current algorithms take this as a sign that the content should be amplified. In a token based system, the lack of tokens would cause the content to fade away. Also, if posts from a certain user make me feel insecure about my body, chances are, I won’t be giving that user my money so this would help reduce the risk of body image and self esteem issues as well.

The biggest benefit from all of this however is that with all of these micro-transactions happening with the tokens, there would need to be an increased age limit for social media. As someone who was on Instagram at age 13, I think 13 is far too young and the age requirements for social networks are far too easy to circumvent. There is no real age verification happening online; anyone can make up a birthday. And if the age limit was not changed, then at the very least, parents would pay closer attention to what their kids are doing online because spending tokens would mean spending money.

I think it’s time that we put pressure on these companies to switch to a method of doing business that aligns corporate & financial #goals with the health & wellbeing of the users instead of putting them at odds.

There is enormous room for improvement in social media networks that would benefit users, advertisers, and the platform itself. I think social media has led to a lot of good in the world but right now in its current form, it’s doing a lot of harm as well. We don’t need to ban social media, quit cold turkey and never use it again, or even get the government involved in order to enact real and impactful change. These social network companies are made up of people and I believe they are people with good intentions. I think it’s time that we put pressure on these companies and ask the people there to switch to a method of doing business that aligns corporate and financial goals with the health and well being of the users instead of putting them at odds.

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