So much for tech’s democratization through social media

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On Feb. 19, Meta Platforms Inc. chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, apparently seizing any opportunity to prop up wilting digital advertisement revenue, announced the company would soon launch a paid verification service in Australia and New Zealand, before rolling it out to the rest of the world.

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At a cost of between US$11.99 and US$14.99 a month, Meta Verified subscribers will get a “service that lets you verify your account with a government ID, get a blue badge, get extra impersonalization protection against accounts claiming to be you, and direct access to customer support.” It mirrors the absurd announcement from Twitter Inc. a few days prior that only Twitter Blue subscribers — at a cost of US$8 a month — can use two-factor authentication via text message.

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So much for tech’s democratization through social media.

Back in tech’s nascent days, a wave of startups promised democratization of all kinds, including equal opportunity and access to digital megaphones that would mobilize mass movements in diverse new ways. These outcomes were generally achieved, as was a sharing economy where people could leverage latent assets — so long as they aren’t passwords. Of course, these changes brought all of the various global online harms that policy people now seek to rein in with state or country-based tools, with varying degrees of success.

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Amid the promise of democratization, new economies of influence emerged on social media, mirroring the winner-take-all system of the brick and mortar world. On social media platforms, participants with large audiences exploit followers via paid promotions, often earning advertising-based compensation from the platforms they perform on. What felt and looked new was really just the next iteration of advertising, dressed up with pithy and virtuous mission statements.

Now, prominent tech CEOs appear to be out of good money-making business ideas, and they’re schilling basic security features as premium add-ons to their services. But paying for basic cybersecurity is like paying extra for a seatbelt in your car — it should be standard, not a bonus. Why not charge more for brakes or a speedometer? Some car companies are already charging recurring fees for features like heated seats, which used to be paid for once during a vehicle’s initial purchase.

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But what’s worse: that these charges exist, or that some people pay for them? It might be more alarming to know that consumers are willing to shell out for exploitative fees than it is that companies charge them in the first place. Charging for verification exploits people’s vanity and desire for “reach,” providing them with a sort of Nexus pass that allows content to pollute the feeds of more people than would otherwise seek it out, in exchange for the dopamine hit of — what exactly? Seeing the view count on tweets increase?

Reconciling this absurd reality leads to the question: What is it that got us to a place where product announcements are now so desperate they appear to mimic articles on satire website The Onion?

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The answer is two-fold. One, the idea that robust monetization models could come after companies built a substantive user base allowed too many to actively defer confronting whether they were creating a solution to a real need, or were just exploiting access to their user base in exchange for aspirational advertising. Two, a lot of tech-space bets have been made in explicit pursuit of monopoly power, which has acted to discount the value of competition and caught some companies — most recently Netflix Inc. — with their competitive pants down. For example, rather than innovating, Netflix is cracking down on password sharing in an attempt to better distribute its shrinking subscriber base.

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The digital economy generally relies heavily on advertising. Consumers have fed the monster by accepting that in exchange for use, social media platforms have the right to feed their algorithms with people’s original content, keystrokes and scrolling — all for free. There’s been some backlash against that bargain more recently, with governments pursuing new policy interventions to better balance privacy and autonomy. In practice, however, consumers continue to scroll and post on the platforms regulators struggle to tame.

These outrageous fees from Twitter and Meta give people an opportunity to mobilize against Big Tech in a way they haven’t before, even on the very platforms trying to trick users into paying money because they don’t know how else to make it. Users of Meta’s platforms or Twitter’s pseudo-town square should resist emerging solicitations for extra fees. No one should be extorted to pay for basic online safety as a feature. It’s like paying Canada’s Wonderland to put down the safety bar on a roller-coaster ride.

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People willing to pay for Twitter’s blue check of verification have already become the butt of jokes over their online egoism. Continuing down this path means letting these platforms, which promised equal access and opportunity to users, to bifurcate people into two groups doomed to scorn each other: those silly enough to pay for identity verification and greater reach of posts, and those who reluctantly continue to engage with a system undeserving of their attention and data. Perhaps this is really more of a collective action problem, where the appetite to withstand manipulation is sated by a penchant for the elusive grail of digital reach.

Instead, product managers, CEOs, and demanding shareholders should be embarrassed by their lack of ingenuity and lazy reliance on unsustainable business models encouraged by too many of their funders. Let’s send them back to their whiteboards.

Vass Bednar is an adjunct professor of political science at McMaster University and executive director of the school’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society program.


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