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.
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.
I would guess that if Google suddenly charged $50 per year to use Google+, I would probably lose 98% of the friends I’ve made.
And I would have a hard time making new friends abroad. For example, as Cuba slowly opens up, I would like to make friends and have conversations with Cubans, too. But $50 is two months’ salary for the average Cuban. On subscription-based social networks, there’s an invisible sign on the door that says: “No Cubans Allowed.”
There may be billions of people in the world who can gain access to an Internet-connected computer, but can’t afford to pay for unnecessary services. There are still others who could afford to pay for social networking, but won’t because they see it as a needless expense. And finally, there’s a tiny minority of wealthy elites who wouldn’t hesitate to pay $50 a year for social network.
Unfortunately, these elites will be talking only amongst themselves on such services. Everybody else will be excluded.
How Advertising Resists the Market Society
The ideal scenario for a social network would be to have voluntary contributions, where some people can pay whatever they like for the service, and a majority could pay nothing. Those who pay get prizes and services of their choice as an incentive to contribute.
While wealthier users would really be paying for everything, anyone could join without paying.
Sounds great, right?
That’s exactly what ad-supported social sites do. That’s what Facebook, Google+ and Twitter do right now.
If you follow the money, the social network displays ads, which incentivizes people to buy things, which goes to the advertiser. Buying that camera you saw in an ad is helping to pay the bills to keep your social network running not just for you, but for everybody.
It’s actually a global redistribution of wealth. The people who buy things on social networks are paying for a service that everybody can use. Those who buy nothing are gaining access to a service paid for by those who do buy.
Ad-supported social networks are inclusive. They’re open to the public, and anyone can join in, make friends and engage in conversations on an equal footing with everyone else.
Subscriber-supported social networks, on the other hand, are exclusive. Subscriber-supported sites like App.net are indistinguishable in principle from country clubs. They’re meeting places where elites can socialize without being bothered by the middle and lower classes.
Dalton Caldwell’s heart is in the right place. He’s trying to create a social space where developers aren’t controlled or excluded.
But ultimately social networking is about having conversations with people. Tools are important, but people are more important.
Advertising, despite all its flaws, acts as a counter-weight to the ever-encroaching market society. Advertising enables the existence of one of the few remaining social spaces in our society where everybody is equal, and everybody is welcome.
Groucho Marx famously joked: "I would not join any club that would have someone like me for a member."
Personally, I would not join any club that would have ONLY a person like me for a member.
And that’s why I love advertiser-supported social sites.