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Social networks let the rich buy influence

Mike Elgan | Jan. 16, 2017
New monetization schemes on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook let sites profit from inequality

Facebook-Boosted posts

The main stream on Facebook for most users is the "News Feed," which is usually by default a tiny subset of the posts from people you follow. You don't see them all. Not even close.

Facebook famously uses algorithms to judge the News Feed-worthiness of posts, then gives you the posts that the algorithm concludes will interest you most.

Reversing that, most of the posts you make on Facebook are not delivered to the News Feeds of your family, friends, colleagues, customers and fans.

But they can be -- for a price. Facebook is happy to sell you advertising. The advertising system even lets you specifically target the objectives of more "Likes" or better engagement -- in other words, more influence.

On Facebook pages, in fact, every single post has a "Boost Post" button for buying influence.

App.net charged admission

An alternative social network called App.net shut down this week. And good riddance.

The social network initially charged admission, essentially making itself a private club for rich people with disposable income that excluded people without.

Wealthy elites loved the site for the same reason that country club members love country clubs; the price of admission keeps out the riff-raff.

Later, App.net softened its monetization policy to a kind of freemium model. But App.net's main benefit was always discrimination based on income.

Should social networks sell influence?

At first glance, the trend toward monetizing social networking by selling influence sounds harmless enough.

YouTube's blog post on Super Chat says the feature is a way for "fans and creators to connect with one another" and enables fans to "get even more of your favorite creator’s attention."

That sounds innocent enough. But let's look at YouTube comments in practice.

The reality is that everybody who posts on YouTube, Twitter or Facebook is doing so in order to reach people.

People want to convince people of a point of view. Sometimes that point of view is in opposition to another point of view. With YouTube Super Chat, the point of view backed by money wins. The rich get to be right and win the arguments.

We've already seen trolls buying ads on Twitter. In May 2015, one troll bought a $25 ad on Twitter urging transgender people to commit suicide. YouTube's Super Chat feature may prove attractive for trolls, especially given the low price of admission and especially for misogynists to target women, racists to target minorities and doxxers to target anybody. YouTube is leaving it up to the video creators to police and monitor Super Chat activity, but that can be hard to do when you're focusing on the making of a live video.

 

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