I was reminded yesterday why it was a sad day in the social media world when Twitter went public on November 7th. We were watching the Big Bang Theory on demand and we couldn’t fast forward through the commercials. The pressure to monetize this channel has forced networks like CBS to turn the on demand option into another broadcast channel. I suppose it was inevitable, they only know one way to work, which is their old way. So, we’ll go back to DVR’ing our favorite shows.
But Twitter going public changes their fundamental model. Just a few years ago, we were collectively playing with Twitter and trying to figure out the lay of the land. What does RT before a message mean? How do you use a hashtag? Is a retweet an endorsement of a message? Are you allowed to edit a retweeted message? If so, how much can we edit while still maintaining the integrity of the original? (Don’t actually know the answer to the last question but remember discussing it on Twitter.)
Most of all, Twitter was fun. It was fast and easy and sassy and organic. And now it’s public and profit-oriented and, most of all, beholden to stockholders and not us users. It was inevitable, I guess, but it’s one more channel that’s gone the way of Facebook which is frantically stuffing my news feed with advertisements.
The lure of big money for platform owners highlights a deeper problem with our social media channels. They look like public commons but they’re actually private shopping malls. We are not standing on a street corner or in a local park or at the school gym and talking about our days, sharing news and photos and planning to get together. Instead, we’re borrowing a table at a cafe where we have to buy a meal or we’ll be asked to leave. And they’re recording our conversation at this cafe and selling it to companies that are then calling us at dinner time to sell us stuff.
We have always had a conflicted view of privacy in this country. The common response is, “I have nothing to hide,” but this is an inadequate response. As Moxie Marlinspike (great name!) wrote on Wired:
“If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.”
In addition, though, companies controlling the pathways of conversations, presumably unlike the phone companies, turning the content of those conversations into marketing revenue, is very troubling – and depressing.
The hubris of these channels is that none of them are going to last forever. None of them are. The technology is too easily replicable and the attention spans of people, particularly young people, are too short for us to settle in permanently online anywhere. I don’t owe Twitter anything, which, I suppose, is also an argument in favor of the company going public – take the money while you can!
The answer, I hope, will be alternatives like public radio to broadcast radio. I would be willing to pay a small amount a year to have access to non commercial channels. It surprises me to write this as I didn’t mind having ads pop up on Google, but it feels like search is different – and I can avoid clicking on those ads. Having ads embedded in my conversation is different, trying to become part of my conversation, feels invasive.
Or, here’s an idea: Dear Twitter, can I pay you a little bit to keep my Twitter streams commercial free?