Would you pay to use Facebook? Not as a marketer, but as a regular user? An op-ed by Zeynep Tufekci in The New York Times argues that we are all already paying for our Facebook and Google use, only the currency is loss of privacy and control over our own data. In the article, "Mark Zuckerberg, Let Me Pay for Facebook," Tufekci argues that ad-financed Internet platforms aren't free, and they don't serve their users very well. Or even themselves.
She claimed that ad-financed Internet platforms don't work very well as business models because Internet ads aren't worth much. Facebook makes about 20 cents per user per month in profit. This isn't much if you consider that the average user spends 20 hours on Facebook every month.
"This paltry profit margin drives the business model: Internet ads are basically worthless unless they are hyper-targeted based on tracking and extensive profiling of users," writes Tufekci. "This is a bad bargain, especially since two-thirds of American adults don't want ads that target them based on that tracking and analysis of personal behavior."
Also because web advertising is not very remunerative, only very large platforms can survive, ones with huge memberships.
Tufekci also says that ad-based businesses distort our online interactions. Users are on Facebook to connect with their friends and family. "Yet ad-based financing means that the companies have an interest in manipulating our attention on behalf of advertisers, instead of letting us connect as we wish," Tufekci writes. Facebook's secret, proprietary algorithm controls our newsfeeds. And Facebook has to control it to keep us on the site longer and show ads. Tufekci argues that if Facebook weren't an ad-financed platform, users could control the algorithm, it wouldn't have to be proprietary.
At core, Tufekci's argument is that ad-based social platforms are "helping destroy the fabric of a rich, pluralistic Internet."
Tufekci suggests that paying for use is a solution to this problem. She writes, "I would, as I bet many others would, happily pay more than 20 cents per month for a Facebook or a Google that did not track me, upgraded its encryption and treated me as a customer whose preferences and privacy matter."
The math of a such a proposal is impressive. If a quarter of Facebook's 1.5 billion users paid $1 per month, it would yield more than $4 billion per year.
"Mark Zuckerberg, seems to have plenty of money, but I'd like to give him some of mine," writes Tufekci. "I want to pay a small fee for the right to keep my information private and to be able to hear from the people I want - not the sponsored-content makers I want to avoid. I want to be a customer, not a product."
The op-ed spurred some interesting debate. Some point out that large scale commercial data collection and an ad-based business model for giant social platforms might have negative consequences for democracy.
Rima Regas of Mission Viegjo, California, writes, "While I am concerned about the creepy nature of ads that mirror web browsing I just did independently of Facebook, I am far more concerned about the ability of Facebook to manipulate an election, or to reap far greater financial gain from manipulating the placement of news items to the highest media and political bidders."
Others claim that their loss of privacy is both volitional and that the services that they receive from companies like Google and Facebook far outweigh any loss of privacy that they experience.
"My loss of privacy has been totally voluntary on my part. However, what I have gotten in return is access to the whole world. The Google search engine can find virtually anything I am interested in seconds and most of Google's services are free...," writes NJG of New Jersey. "Facebook has introduced me to people that I otherwise would have never met and I have been enriched by meeting them. Being targeted by ads is a very small price to pay for what I get in return. No one forces anyone to use Facebook or anything else on the Internet. Many users could not afford to pay for these services."
Rachel in Massachusetts writes, "To all of those who deny the huge positive impact of Facebook, Google, and social media in general simply because we are still figuring out how to monetize the internet ethically, you come across as reactionaries."
To some the op-ed read as an attack on advertising itself. A few commentators came to its defense.
"The companies who are advertising are writing large checks, over an extended period of time to generate impressions and perhaps after 20 exposures are able to convert one in 100 viewers to leads or purchasers," writes Steve Salinger of New York. "For this large companies generate revenue and spend billions of dollars across television, digital and other media. In aggregate, they sell their products and keep the global economy going as consumer move online. This is called advertising and has been a part of media since Roman times and before."
Image from Shutterstock.