recent, Social Media

It’s Time to Pay for Social Media

Information doesn’t want to be free. It’s valuable and wants to earn. And its existence doesn’t free anyone; possessing it, however, can do the opposite.
~Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie

A lot of people are angry about the current state of social media. While sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can help us stay connected, educated, and entertained, they’ve also fractured our attention spans, destabilized our mental health, and aided the spread of disinformation worldwide. As the harms of social media have come to light, a debate has emerged around how to remedy them. Some, such as Elizabeth Warren, want to use antitrust laws to break up the tech giants. Others think that we must update regulations to hold companies more accountable for content on their platforms. And still others think that we must abandon social media entirely.

These solutions all have issues. Breaking up the tech giants would interrupt the network effects that make their products so valuable in the first place. Expecting companies to reliably police the content and interactions of billions of users across hundreds of cultures is simply not realistic. And many people, whether they like it or not, need social media for work or education.

Amidst the calls for reform, one possible solution has received surprisingly little attention: having users pay for social media. We’re so accustomed to using the internet for free that few people want to consider that the free model is the source of social media’s ills. But at the final account, companies exist to make money. And because they make little money from users, they’ve sacrificed our interests in the service of others who are more willing to pay.

People often say that social media’s business model relies on advertising, but this is only partly true. Historically, advertisers have had relatively little power to monitor the behaviour of their targets; if they wanted to sell you on something, the best they could do was put up a billboard or knock on your door. But today, as feedback loops get faster and algorithms get smarter, the internet offers an unprecedented ability to tweak the beliefs, desires, and behaviour of its users. As a result, social media promises more than just advertising—it promises the ability to manipulate users’ beliefs and actions with ever-finer granularity.

Given what’s on offer, it’s no wonder that countless third parties are paying for a chance to influence the economic and political lives of billions of people. And as long as this rotten incentive structure stands, we can only expect so much improvement. As computer scientist Jaron Lanier has said, “We cannot have a society in which if two people wish to communicate the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.” Unfortunately, there’s a widespread belief that the free model is worth it. For many people, targeted ads and overblown news stories about Facebook’s influence on politics are a small price to pay for free, unlimited videos, messages, tweets, and status updates. But when we consider the human cost of getting so much for free, it starts to look like a raw deal.

“Don’t be so alarmist,” some might say. “You’re overstating the ability of third parties and algorithms to sway behaviour.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that most social media users are indeed immune to current forms of online manipulation. Even then, numerous harms have already arisen from the fact that someone else sponsors our screen time. First is the quality of social media itself. For all of modern consumerism’s ills, it has empowered customers to an unprecedented degree by forcing large, powerful firms to put the needs of consumers first. The best way to separate someone from their cash is to offer a product that genuinely enriches their lives. Consequently, the products we pay for tend to improve with time, from lightbulbs and laptops to trucks and toothbrushes.

However, the prime directive of social media companies is not enriching users’ lives, because users aren’t actually the customers. Instead, companies aim to maximize our time on screen, because, as former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris has said, “For any company whose business model is advertising… they make more money the more time people spend [with their product].” Rather than incentivizing social media to help us, therefore, we’ve incentivized it to hook us. Social media is like receiving a free car, courtesy entirely of third parties. This car will take you where you want to go, but only in the most circuitous route possible. At first this is mildly annoying, as you lose valuable time driving through advertisement-dense slums, occasionally slowing down so that you can overhear snippets of arguments you care nothing about. But free is free, so who are you to complain?

Which brings us to the second harm: not only are we losing time, we’re also losing our collective cool. By now, we’ve all seen that anger is cheap online. Social media leverages this weak spot, repeatedly dipping us in tribal indignation to drive up time on screen. By serving the interests of the parties who pay for our social media, cheap outrage has, perversely, morphed into something of value. It’s as though, on your journeys through the ad-littered landscapes, your free car has learned which arguments invigorate you, and it slows down as you pass them, tempting you to linger and engage (with a will all your own, of course).

This is a twisted state of affairs. If we paid for our social media presence, outrage would simultaneously cease being as cheap to us and as valuable to others. How many trolls, shit-posters, and troglodytes could we shake simply by forcing them to jump a paywall? If designers were liberated from the mandate to maximize users’ time on screen, and could focus solely on improving the quality of social media itself, what treasures might emerge?

The third harm is the loss of privacy, which has caught the public’s eye following the Cambridge Analytica exposés and Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing. Strictly speaking, Facebook does not sell user data. But they do trade in it, and with more than six million third parties vying to profit from it, our data is in a precarious position. Until we pay for our own screen time, social media companies like Facebook will be incentivized to give away as much specific information as possible. Some think the tradeoff between privacy and free services is a worthwhile deal. And to some extent, they’re right: services like Google Maps improve the more we let them track us. But often, the parties pursuing our data have goals incompatible with our own. Instead of using data to serve us, they would use it against us.

We’ve already seen how bad actors have used our data to identify susceptible demographics and sow political discord worldwide. As technology improves and we upload more of ourselves to the cloud, such campaigns will come to look comically crude. Cambridge Analytica harvested reams of data to glean the personality traits of millions of users; now we’re learning that this can be done through click patterns alone. Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, has suggested that mouse movements could be used to identify the onset of neurological problems. If this data stays with us, we could seek treatment with an early diagnosis; if it goes to insurers, they could hike premiums or deny coverage altogether.

And what happens once our data includes biometrics like blood glucose, heart rate variability, oxygen saturation, and genomic markers? Do we continue exchanging such valuable data on networks sponsored by others, which cater to their grasp? Or do we realize that free was never really free, and with each passing year we’re losing more of our time, attention, security, and collective sanity?

Where transparent markets are lacking, we often see harmful consequences. By passing off the true cost of social media to others, we’ve impoverished our online lives—which are, of course, just as real as our offline lives. As we come to terms with this debt, we might ask how to carve a better path forward. Undoubtedly, not everyone will be enthusiastic about paying for social media. For many people, free is the internet’s biggest selling point, no matter how good paid services like Netflix or Amazon Prime become. And politicians are unlikely to explicitly push for a paid model, lest their constituents believe that they want to help line the coffers of the evil tech giants.

It remains to be seen how we might move from the wild west of free to a more sustainable, user-oriented paid model. Convincing people of the latter’s merits will certainly help. As could some type of progressive tax, levied on social media ad revenue. Referring to such a tax, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer has pointed out, “Ad-driven platform companies could avoid the tax entirely by switching to the business model that many digital companies already offer: an ad-free subscription. Under this model, consumers know what they give up, and the success of the business would not hinge on tracking customers with ever more sophisticated surveillance techniques. A company could succeed the old-fashioned way: by delivering a service that is worth more than it costs.”

Regardless of how we get there, it’s time for all of us to draw back and reassess the value of social media, both in our personal lives and for the world at large. In 2019, Facebook expected to make $69 billion. For a few dollars a month, we could better align this tech behemoth—and others like it— with the values, goals, and wellbeing of the people that use it. And if we’re unwilling to make this investment, perhaps we should ask whether such sites are truly worth the attention we give them.


Tristan Flock is an engineering student and writer with a BSc and a JD. You can follow him on Twitter @tbonesbeard


  1. If it was time to pay for social media there would already be a SM platform with a paywall. There isn’t because everyone knows there’s nothing on social media worth paying for.

    If designers were liberated from the mandate to maximize users’ time on screen, and could focus solely on improving the quality of social media itself, what treasures might emerge?

    Albeit only five minutes I’ve sat with this idea, I failed to conceptualize what treasures might emerge from monetization. It’s like putting a coin meter on a town hall billboard - would the content posted improve? Or would it just bar the very poorest civilians from adding their particular brand of piffle to the rest? If paywalls had noticeably improved the content on MSM platforms I might have a different view about social media.

  2. I think there ought to be a pay option. Opting to do so would end social media’s collection of data of the payer for the purpose of monetising it. Remember, social media claims it must suppress certain types of content because it doesn’t appeal to advertisers. Personally I think this an over-egged pretense, but removing this rationalisation puts an end to the claim. It also removes the pressure activists exert against social media and its advertisers.

    Those who prefer the freebie option will still have their data collected, sold, etc. “I give up my privacy, which is social media’s raison d’etre where its users are to be publishers and broadcasters, to gain a bundle of tools allowing me to have a public persona and convenience.” We have to face the fact social media companies have invested billions to provide the platforms, so they ought to be able to recoup this investment as well as provide a profit to its investors.

    Lastly, in the US the government ought to forcefully pursue lawsuits against those platforms that have abused their legal protections and privileges as platforms to become liable editors. Either you’re a platform or an editor, but you may not be both. The only time platforms may remove content is when it violates law, such as hosting child pornography, incitement of imminent violence, etc. Further, in the case of COPPA, it is the children and their guardians who have violated the law. It’s absolutely impossible for platforms to genuinely verify the user’s age unless IDs are submitted and verified genuine, which opens up a can of worms, especially for those who state anonymity is vital to protect those opposing repressive regimes. It is the parent who put the device in the child’s hands, so they bear the responsibility. Neither Ford nor Ferrari, nor the public roads, are responsible when an underaged child swipes his parents’ car key to go joyriding and crashes into another vehicle or pedestrian. The liability rests on the child, his/her parents, and the insurer. We need to cease being bamboozled and having our freedoms infringed “for the good of the children.”

    Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it. If a baby chokes on steak every once in a while, so be it. The parent should have been paying attention. I’ve pretty much lost all desire to further mollycoddle children and other marginalised people to my detriment. Screw 'em.

  3. Some have been told elsewhere to stop saying ‘If You’re Not Paying, You’re The Product’ but it still bears repeating.

  4. “marginalised people”. Therein is the problem. Marginalized people are people who have been given too much help. The bigotry of low expectations.

  5. I should try and tease you about getting money about politics. In anticipation of the threat, look for Google, Facebook, et al to dramatically increase their political contributions.

  6. sounds like an easy way for billionaires to manufacture consent with troll farms of their very own…

  7. The article fails to explain how a pay model would feasibly work. It doesn’t even bother to consider the complications. For example, the author claims paying would diminish shit posters and trolls. really? We would still be bombarded by celebrities giving us quack medical advice etc. If Facebook made $69 billion last year, why would it drop a profitable business model. Obviously, if it made people pay to use it, it could take a knock. And what? We are to assume that if people had to pay Facebook they would stop posting cat and food photos? No, that’s what they WANT to post. And, hell, let them. Google is a search engine. We would have to pay it a sizable chunk, if there was a pay model. Do you think that would make it stop its naughty surveillance? Nah, they already claim that’s a customer service. There is a lot of criticisms I could make. But here is a last one. Who gets to say what is a shitpost? I mean, I consider the article a shitpost.

  8. Actually, one more thing. The idea that paying would result in a superior product is not well thought through. People pay to see Fast and Furious sequels, Avengers movies, Star Wars reboots etc. Nor does payment automatically result in better business practices. Disney doesn’t like to give stuff for free, and it happily uses child labor and sweatshops in China.

  9. Jonny, there is a new social media platform behind a paywall, see RubinReport app. The conversation there is respectful and engaging while still retaining diversity of opinion.

  10. I think the service provided for free is the “payment”. What does one get with a “free”, i.e. no money transferred from your pocket to Zuck’s, Facebook account? You get a directory of 2.45 billion members. You are provided unlimited full-resolution photo storage, and have the ability to upload multiple photos simultaneously. You can upload videos with unlimited bitrates, up to 1 gigabyte in size. The max file size and time length are 1.75 GB and 45 minutes per video. You may also store photos and videos to its cloud. Facebook messenger offers free voice and video calls to any other Facebook user to include exchanging photos, videos, stickers, audio, and files, as well as reacting to other users’ messages. There’s live streaming, so if you’re robbing a bank or have kidnapped a Trump supporter you may share the event with your friends and law enforcement. Users are provided tools to add 3D effects into their photos and videos. Not only is there Facebook Marketplace to buy and sell items, you may transfer money to friends. Facebook even gives you several games. Its services are available in 111 languages, and all of these are available 24 x 7 x 365, hosted by Facebook so you don’t have to pay the tech support to keep the space of your Facebook page on your server available, optimised, and backed up, nor do you have to pay the electrical bills. And because so many websites have partnered with Facebook, you have the convenience of single sign-on.

    From Q1 2009 to Q3 2019 Facebook spent $44.712 billion on research and development.

    What would it cost you to duplicate all the tools, services, tech support, bandwidth, and everything else provided on your Facebook page on a website of our own, say a Geocities one? You’ll need to buy a domain name, and a top level one such as .com can cost up to $20 per annum. Yes, not a lot. Have you checked out the costs of shared, VPS, and dedicated hosting? Now things can get expensive, especially if you want to provide video which consumes a lot of bandwidth. And you still haven’t designed anything yet.

    For fun I checked with about registering a name and hosting. I selected its unlimited bandwidth option, 200 GB of storage (its largest capacity), enhanced security to protect me from hackers and DDOS attacks, full-time site administration to include backups, all hosted on a virtual private server. Just about anything Facebook provides minus the directory, the webpage template, its icons, tagging, games, and other features. My cost for a 36-month contract? $5,795.28. Almost $161 per month.

    Facebook is not making $161 per month from any one person’s data. It makes its money by having billions of users that it can slice, dice and bundle in countless ways to provide an advertiser or political campaign tens and hundreds of thousands of people most receptive to a particular message crafted to be most appealing to them. One person is basically worthless. A large bundle of people is worth a lot.

    In June 2013, the Financial Times built and revealed a unique calculator that allows one to check the worth of an individual’s personal data. It was designed to provide an insight into the multibillion-dollar data brokerage industry. This industry is built around profiting from trading thousands of data points on the personal information of people across the globe. The calculator was last updated in July 2017.

    For this analysis, we will take essential data points that Facebook users provide voluntarily, such as age, gender, and location. There are other common data points that users willingly fork over while building their profiles on the network. This data is easily extracted from user activity and updates posted on Facebook by users or their connections. These data points include relationship status, family size, shopping preferences, ownership of cars, fitness, travel preferences, and other assets owned.

    The average person’s data often retails for less than a dollar.

    General information about a person, such as their age, gender and location is worth a mere $0.0005 per person, or $0.50 per 1,000 people. A person who is shopping for a car, a financial product or a vacation is slightly more valuable to companies eager to pitch those goods.

    You may tinker with the FT’s online data-value calculator here - don’t neglect to click each tab. You’ll find that if you have health problems the value of your data increases greatly.

  11. Absolutely. But why social media only? Why not it is time to pay for AIR?
    “Amidst the calls for reform, one possible solution has received surprisingly little attention: having users pay for” AIR. “We’re so accustomed to using” AIR “for free that few people want to consider that the free model is the source of” AIR “ills”

  12. Article author seems to believe only trolls and shit posters are responsible for false information. While they are, they are only part of the problem. Also, never underestimate someone’s commitment to annoy others. Yes, some people would stop at paywall and decide it is not worth it anymore, but I can guarantee there will be a group, and not small one, that will simply pay and continue. But, again, they are only part of the problem.

    Other part are people belonging to “blue checkmark pronouns corps” and their Right sided counterpart on Twitter. They can afford to pay and they would, pushing their agenda as it is now. Except, unlike now, there will be less people ready and willing to call them on their bullshit. For example, there are trans people on Twitter that are very much against activists inside their community and playing victim card over and over again. The paywall will sooner purge them than people they are against.

  13. If we pay for social media that means some will be unable to afford it and hence deprived. So naturally it follows social media will become a positive right. If someone is being deprived of a positive right that means others must pay for them to fulfill the need. Then everyone will have social media and we will be back to square one plus a cost.

  14. They’re experimenting with paid social media right now. It’s in its infancy, but evolving and growing and doing well. It’s based purely on micro-payments. Paid social media will replace the existing tragedy of the commons. Feel free to sign up and take a look:

  15. I’m old enough to remember when paying for TV reception was sold as being a way to get the content you wnated without the annoying commercials. That’s how we got cable that locked us in to tiers of channels with no consumer choice and a small but steadily growing number of commercials. Today we’re paying for reception that is as commercial-heavy as it was when TV was free.

    I would turn the author’s logic around: rather than paying for the social media access we get “free” now, let’s get paid for the specific kinds of personal information we are willing to divulge. Let consumers choose what social media to pay for with which personal data and have the social media platforms compete for that money.

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