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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

The pay for influence schemes simply transform social networks from a sphere where influence is earned through merit, for the most part, to one in which the rich can afford to influence and the poor cannot.

Different groups tend to have different levels of disposable income. Minorities, women, immigrants, young people, single people, rural people all tend to have less money. So in theory, they have less ability to buy influence on some social networks and so as groups have less influence on the national conversation.

The disparity in disposable income is significant within countries, but astronomical between them.

For example, in Australia, the national minimum wage is more than $13 per hour, which means to pay $5 for Super Chat influence priority costs an Australian earning minimum wage less than a half hour of work.

In the East African nation of Tanzania, the national minimum wage is 10 cents an hour, which means a Tanzanian worker at that wage has to work 30 hours to buy $5 dollars worth of influence. At $5, Super Chat influence is, in practice, beyond the reach of most Tanzanians.

The ugly truth about YouTube's Super Chat policy effectively means that Australians can easily buy influence and Tanzanians cannot.

The same goes for influence on Twitter and Facebook.

Is that how social interaction is supposed to work? Should social networks use monetization schemes to privilege already privileged groups and nations?

The right way to monetize social

YouTube's Super Chat is being compared in news reports to Twitch Cheering, which was introduced last summer. (Twitch is Amazon's live streaming video platform, mostly focused on gaming.)

The Cheering feature enables people to buy what are called "Bits," which can then be added to comments in the form of Bit Emoticons during live video streams. Bit Emoticons are animated and their size, color and shape are determined by the number of "Bits" used to pay for them.

The comparison between YouTube Super Chat and Twitch Cheering is a bad one. The reason? Cheering doesn't boost influence. The messages are treated the same as other messages, and scroll away as quickly as any others.

So Twitch is doing it better than YouTube, monetizing by allowing people who donate to display their donation along with their comment, without favoring that comment and making the commenter have a dominant position over other comments.

The traditional way to monetize both social and content is through advertising, a model that I believe is the most ethical way to monetize online. Advertising is egalitarian because those who cannot afford to buy the advertised products still get the content, interaction and influence free.


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