Now we’re paying for social media … but for what, exactly?
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Meta has jumped on the blue badge bandwagon. Last week, the company announced a verification service for Facebook and Instagram at a price of $11.99 a month, per app.
If that sounds familiar, maybe you’ve heard of the new and improved Twitter Blue, which will cost you $8 a month. It’s part of the trend of social media platforms turning to user fees instead of relying just on advertising dollars.
They used to say that if you’re not paying for the product, the product is you. But if you’re now paying for social media, what exactly is the product?
Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke to Shirin Ghaffary, a correspondent at Vox, about the benefits and trade-offs of the blue badge.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Shirin Ghaffary: In Facebook’s case, you’re getting increased customer service. If someone hacks your account or you can’t get into your account, you can call up someone and get help. They’re also offering you a badge basically signifying to the world that you are who you say you are. And then they are also offering you, I think most importantly, more eyeballs, more reach, more attention. If you’re an influencer or you’re someone who runs a business on Facebook or Instagram, they’re saying that whatever you post will get increased priority in comments, in search and even in recommended content.
Meghan McCarty Carino: Why are we seeing Meta and these other platforms moving to this business model now?
Ghaffary: Because that old model of essentially running the business off of advertising is being crunched. There’s an advertising slump right now, and on top of that, you have increased privacy restrictions that make it harder for these companies to take your data and target specific ads to you. Apple rolled out a privacy tracker, and it’s been massively detrimental to the businesses of Meta, which owns Facebook, and basically any other company that runs on this targeted advertising model.
McCarty Carino: Right. It basically defaults to asking users if they want to be tracked, and people pretty much don’t want to be tracked.
Ghaffary: That’s right. If you use an iPhone, you’ve probably seen this by now. When you use apps, you’ll get a little pop-up saying, “Do you really want this app tracking your behavior across the web?” And most people say no, and that’s arguably good for the user if you’re data privacy-conscious. But it’s bad for businesses like Facebook.
McCarty Carino: I’m interested in the timing of this. Clearly there’s a changing economic landscape and an imperative for these platforms to find a new way to make money, but it feels like they’re doing it at a time when they’ve already lost a lot of goodwill from users.
Ghaffary: That’s the tough part. They’re trying to upsell users at a time when there’s slower growth already, even with these apps being free. So now you’re asking more people to sign up and use your app and on top of that to pay money, when already it’s free and people are not signing up in the same numbers as they used to. That being said, I think with Facebook and Instagram in particular, there are millions of people who use these apps to run businesses, and I think for those folks, it makes sense to pay $12 per month to get even more views or clicks. But for the average person, I think it’s a really risky idea to create a sort of two-tiered system, where an average user may not get the same kind of visibility they’re used to on Facebook. Or you may not get the same services that you’re seeing other people get, like that increased customer service.
McCarty Carino: For those who decide not to pay, how might that change their experience on these platforms?
Ghaffary: I would argue that it’s going to present a more commercialized experience in many ways. Before on Facebook or Instagram, when you saw an ad, it was clearly marked as an ad. Now you don’t know if you’re seeing a post because someone paid to get premium Facebook and their content is being boosted or if that post is really the most interesting or relevant content for you. I’ve heard a lot of complaints from users over the years that apps like Instagram can feel too commercial and there’s too many people promoting themselves and their product on it. I think this runs a risk of pushing that even further and blurring the line between advertisements and regular content on social media.
McCarty Carino: There are other kinds of services that have had multiple tiered, paid systems for a while. I’m thinking of dating apps or streaming services, where you can pay extra to go ad-free or add some extra functionality with a paid tier. What can we learn about user behavior from those other services?
Ghaffary: Yeah, I think the idea of having a premium model isn’t new. We can see this model in which a small percentage of users who have the extra cash and for whom it makes good business sense actually do pay for this. That being said, I think we’re also seeing people get subscription fatigue. This is a common phenomenon. I think a lot of people — especially with inflation right now — are looking at how much all these different services are costing, and they’re cutting back. That’s something that these companies need to be mindful of when rolling out these tiered programs.
McCarty Carino: Social media platforms are only as good as their network effects, right? Their utility depends on being the place where everyone gathers. What happens if this bifurcation results in a tiny minority of users paying and the service becoming worse for everyone else?
Ghaffary: That’s right. It’s a balance between making money and helping creators and professional businesses on your platform, but also making it a fun and interesting place for regular users. If regular users feel even more alienated and feel like the platform is just VIPs and celebrities pushing their content on them, then people will post less and you run the risk of people not sharing those candid, authentic, organic moments on social media. As much as Facebook and Instagram and Twitter rely on professional influencers to create content, they also rely on people just posting pictures of their dog and their family, and I think that’s the tough thing here. It’s understandable why these companies are looking for different revenue streams, but at the same time, their main product and promise to society is to create an open and free platform for people to communicate with each other, and if they jeopardize that, then they could be sort of jeopardizing the main product here.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
In Shirin Ghaffary’s story for Vox, she goes into more detail about how these paid services are turning customer service and privacy into luxuries, instead of treating them like a basic and necessary part of any business.
This whole conversation brings me back to a conversation we had this month with Cory Doctorow, a journalist and all-around internet intellectual. It was about his theory of the three-phase life cycle all the big tech companies seem to be going through, which ultimately ends in a state he describes with some colorful language.
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