Oz asks, "Might some any of the major platforms ever go to a paid service where consumers can get some peace from ads? It’d be another thing that’s not good for marketers but it’d make me very very happy as a consumer."
I don’t foresee the current ad-driven social networks going that direction, but that’s been the secret of success for networks like Slack and Discord. They make their money on the users instead; Slack charges for the instance overall once you’re past 10,000 messages (you can keep using it for free, you just get nagged a lot to buy stuff, and you lose message history) and Discord has paid upgrades to make your server better (improved voice chat, more emoji, etc.).
Will either of the two supplement their main revenue streams with ads? Possibly. I can’t say for sure, but so far they’ve both been successful in the marketplace of ideas. Discord in particular has emerged as a real powerhouse, with tens of thousands of servers for nearly every interest.
You raised an interesting point about Clubhouse in the comment you left – it’s unclear what their revenue model is, so there’s every chance that it will become an ad-driven network, in which case all the data folks have provided there will be leveraged at some point for more ads. That’s the key to understanding which social networks are more or less likely to have privacy issues: the revenue model. If it’s not clear how a company is making money, then chances are we are the product, not the customer.
What’s the bigger picture solution? In the end, the centralization of social networks will inevitably give way to a decentralized solution of some kind. Every successful technology we’ve put on the Internet has eventually decentralized for one simple reason: scale. After a certain point, scale becomes unmanageable, or the company has to do some crazy stuff just to remain operational. When you look at how Facebook operates behind the scenes, they’re having to use massive amounts of AI just to manage their code, never mind adding new features.
The challenge is that no decentralized solution for social media has become available yet that mirrors the ease of setting up a website or opening up an email account. Networks like Mastodon have made a good effort, but their complexity and lack of user friendliness have been substantial barriers to adoption. Another reason Slack and Discord have become so popular is that the hosting companies, which is what they effectively are, don’t have to moderate or manage the communities under their banner, whereas centralized networks do.
Twitter has made slow progress on its Bluesky initiative, which aims to do this. Once decentralized, like email or the Web, then there’s no central authority collecting our data. That opens up a whole host of other problems, but there’s a tradeoff for everything – and in general, decentralization increases the opportunities for privacy. And marketers will still be able to operate in those environments; marketers run websites and send emails all the time. It’s just easier to tune out than a centralized location like Facebook.
So for now, if you want more privacy and fewer ads, look to networks like Discord and Slack, eschewing the Facebook ecosystem. Encourage your friends and family to join you on your own server, and give yourself a breather from the watchful eyes of Zuckerberg and company.
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