Who Owns Our Social Capital?

Shortly after Apple debuted its version of “the cloud” four years ago, I wrote a short post contemplating the future of ownership. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the shifting meaning of ownership in the context of the social networks within which we conduct no small part of our daily lives. Namely, Facebook and Twitter.

In this intriguing piece from Pacific Standard, the author suggests we all start charging companies for our online data, conveniently eliding the fact that there are deeply entrenched power structures that would need to do an altruistic 180 for that to even enter the realm of possibility. Short of opting out of, oh, all services, how can consumers leverage any semblance of power to make such a demand?

Not easily.

To his credit, the author admits he hasn’t considered the economic implications of his idealistic suggestion, and indeed, he doesn’t seem to see the landscape of the current information/data market for his money-tree of an idea. Alas, capital is highly concentrated among the very companies he wants consumers to charge for the privilege of collecting, storing, and mining their data. How can those of us without that volume of capital, social or material, possibly set our price? We are at their mercy.

I’m of the cynical view that consumers, even as a united front, have little actual power to effect change. The means of production are too tightly wound around the hands of those at the top. They even control the means of communication and socialization. Besides, consumers would probably need social media to mount an economic revolution. It’s one of the most viable mobilization tools we have at our disposal. What happens when the services don’t like what their users are saying and doing with it and turn it off?

Conversely, what happens if (when?) ostensibly “free” services start becoming less so. As many have pointed out, corporations pay for the right to advertise their products to people using these social media services. But profit margins for Facebook & Twitter are slim to nonexistent. So at what point do these services re-evaluate and start making their monetizing more visible and felt by the user?

At what point in the process of monetization do people start migrating to new, “free” services? When Twitter figures out how to monetize itself effectively, how will that affect user experience? Will users rebel by leaving? Or will the service’s gamble pay off, with users having become so entrenched and loyal that it’s easier to stay & pay than flee for free?

It’s tough to predict, but one thing I’m pretty sure won’t happen (at least not successfully) is users demanding to be paid for their participation in these social networks.


Filed under Contemporary, Power, Technology

2 responses to “Who Owns Our Social Capital?

  1. These days it feels like ownership is less important than the power to attract and hold audience attention. Attention has become such a commodity that people who seem to possess no other skill have become wealthy just because they have the ability to get others to watch them. From protest movements (Black Lives Matter) to reality shows to youTube videos to TEDTalks, the ability to “take something viral” is the hallmark of social capital these days. So the question is whether social media platforms will be able to control that or whether the makers of content will find ways to create content compelling enough that platforms won’t dare suppress it. That is, will the platforms’ need for high traffic to generate profitability force them to remain open in terms of content? And if not, will other platforms emerge to channel attention-getting content to audiences? It’s hard to predict because the turnover in successful platforms has been increasing (anyone remember MySpace?). But it does suggest that consumers have become more willing to abandon popular platforms that become passe. And there’s some reason for hope in that. On the other hand, as one of the characters on “Law&Order: Criminal Intent” so wisely said, “Hope is for suckers.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Attention-as-commodity is a really interesting concept/phenomenon, and the question of who controls viral-ity(?) is crucial. Perhaps it’s unpredictable…the control can probably be identified on a case-by-case basis, but I wonder if there’s a pattern, yet. I like how you’ve turned the object of analysis to examine whether the need for traffic drivers platform’s management decisions. At a certain point, I still think some content can become threatening to what keeps platforms in business–that is, the value of the bottom line.


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