Why I Love Ad-Supported Social Sites

Everybody loves to hate advertising on social networks. But ads make the world a better place. I’ll prove it to you.
Posted August 16, 2012

Mike Elgan

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After being famously screwed over by Facebook, technologist and entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell launched a Kickstarter-like campaign to fund a rival social network called App.net, a "real-time social feed without the ads." He has already met his fundraising goals.

App.net will be a Twitter-like social site, but open and extensible by third-party developers. And it won’t have advertising. The site will be paid for by $50-per-year membership fees.

The thinking behind banning ads is based on Caldwell’s personal experience as a developer. He noticed that as both Twitter and Facebook got serious about monetizing through ads, they became more “closed” to third-party developers, more controlling about who could build what in support of the platform.

I’ve never met Caldwell, but he seems like an honest and brilliant guy. He appears to have been genuinely wronged and is making a good-faith effort to create an open social platform that’s protected from the corrupting influence of advertising.

Caldwell believes that a social network without advertising will make the world a better place. Unfortunately, he’s wrong.

In fact, advertising-supported social networks are exactly what the world needs, despite the problems he’s articulated.

Here’s why.

Rise of the Market Society

A Harvard professor of political philosophy named Michael J. Sandel wrote a book recently called What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Sandel writes that while a “market economy” is the best kind of economy, market thinking can spill over the walls that separate economic activity from social and political activity, leading to a “market society.”

In other words, money can buy things these days that it never could before. He argues that our world is increasingly becoming a “market society,” and this is a bad thing. He gives examples.

Some doctors now charge between $1,500 and $25,000 per year to give their cell phone numbers to patients, and also give them same-day appointments. Poor patients have to wait weeks to talk to their doctor.

Some cities like San Diego and Seattle allow commuters to pay either a set price or a per-mile charge to use the carpool lane, even when driving solo. Drivers who can’t afford to pay get stuck in traffic. (In the communist Soviet Union, major roads in Moscow had what they called ZiL lanes, reserved for elites. Now we’ve got them.)

A prison in California allows prisoners to pay $90 per night to upgrade their cell to one that’s clean and quiet, while prisoners who can’t afford the upgrade live in cramped, noisy squalor.

In order to be fair, access to Congressional hearings has always been granted on a first-come, first-served basis. But now, lobbyists routinely pay homeless people to stand in line for them. Just before the hearing, the lobbyist shows up and takes his place in front of citizens who have been waiting for hours.

Sandel gives many other examples like these in which non-commercial situations where everybody used to be equal have been transformed by market incentives into situations where people are unequal. One class of people have special privileges, another does not.

Medical patients, drivers on the freeways, prison inmates and citizens seeking access to their government used to be treated equally, but now they’re treated as first-class and second-class citizens as market incentives pervade areas of life outside the marketplace.

Sandel says this trend is having a corrosive influence on society, and we need to do something about it.

How Subscription-Based Social Sites Contribute to the Market Society

Subscription-based social services contribute to our slide into a market society. The subscription fee creates a barrier to participation by people who can’t afford it.

Subscriber-supported social sites are just like regular sites, but the homeless and unemployed are not allowed to participate. People in poor countries are excluded. Single mothers struggling to put food on the table for their children are, for all practical purposes, banned from using the site.

I’m a huge fan of Google+, which has no ads, but is ultimately ad supported (it’s paid for, theoretically, by Google’s other ad-supported sites, such as Search and YouTube).

One of the greatest things about Google+ is that it’s very international. I’ve made friends on Google+ with people from Pakistan, Thailand, Costa Rica, China, Ireland, Fiji, Madagascar and even Canada. In fact all over the world.

I’ve had great conversations with people in the United States who have been laid off, are homeless, or otherwise very short on disposable income. I’ve talked to starving students, monks who have taken a vow of poverty and fixed-income retirees.

Everyday, I have great conversations with people from all over the world, rich and poor.

We talk about politics, religion, social issues and every other topic you can think of. And I’ve learned an enormous amount from these global friends.

I use a Chrome browser plug-in called Google Translate for Google+. It can translate posts and comments in dozens of languages into English. It also has a one-click option that auto-translates everything into English without any further action on my part. People post and comment in whatever language they speak, and I see everything in English.

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Tags: Facebook, Twitter, social business, google+

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