The Social Media Product is YOU

ElloI was inspired to write this post by reading a post from my colleague Peter Campbell. It's worth a read.

If any of your fellow travelers are queer or trans, you definitely have heard about the Facebook real names brou-ha-ha. It has been, for many, the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of Facebook. I don't know that I've seen an exodus, per se, but I know that a lot of people I know have been checking out Ello, as have I. (If you want an invite, email me. Frankly, it has a horrible UX.)

There is no question that the real names policy makes being on Facebook untenable for some, for a wide variety of reasons, not just because someone's a drag performer. I personally know people who could possibly be injured by ex-partners if they revealed their real names on Facebook. I also personally know people who's "real" name isn't who they are anymore.

But there is something critical people forget. Facebook is free (as is Google+, Ello, Twitter, and every other social network.)

If the product is free, you are the product.

Protesting that Facebook (or any other free social media service) bow to the wishes of their users is not especially likely to succeed. They will, of course, do some things to keep people happily on Facebook - they may yet revise their policy. But they will do everything they can to enhance the money that they can make from you, the product. That is the only thing that you can ever guarantee. The real reason behind the real names conflict isn't at all about reducing the number of trolls. It's almost certainly about advertisers being able to better target you. That's why privacy keeps sucking. Privacy is in direct opposition to the ability to market to you.

A moment of disclosure. I am one of those people that pays Facebook. Yup. I'm an advertiser. Very tiny potatoes as it goes, but Conscious Girlfriend does indeed run Facebook ads now and again. It has proven to be extraordinarily useful, and Google ads don't do nearly as much in terms of getting the word out about what we do. Sadly, there really is nothing to replace it (if there were, we'd use it.)

And this is where the problem lies, of course. The nugget of the problem, that started out very many years ago (in internet time). Everything started out free, but of course, it doesn't cost nothing. Software costs money to make and maintain. Servers cost money to run, everything costs money.  And the more users something has, the more it costs. So where does that come from? It comes, ultimately from most of us that buy stuff that is advertised on the internet. That's how the money flows, and alternative systems (paywalls, etc.) have been flops.

So to demand that Facebook (or Google+, or Ello, or any other free social media platform) do anything that will get in the way of them making money is not going to be especially useful. The only answer is something along the lines of Diaspora, the open source, distributed social network. But that requires that way more people dive into things that require technology expertise. And running a Diaspora pod takes... right, money, too.

I don't have a good answer to this (besides dismantling capitalism, my favorite answer to most of our problems), but I do know that at some point, maybe it's a year or two, Ello will start doing things to make money. And people won't like it.