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?
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?