What if social media firms paid us?

Exploitation by tech firms is not inevitable, suggests Vanessa Baird.

Exploitation by tech firms and social media firms is not inevitable, suggests Vanessa Baird.

Data, we are told, is the new gold, the new oil. The most valuable commodity of all.

How much is it worth? Hard to say, but the profits of companies that have been most successful at mining it provide a clue. In 2017 Facebook made $40 billion revenue, $39.9 billion of which came from targeted advertising using the personal data it had amassed from users. Google, the other giant in the data-based digital advertising world, has a different method of accumulation, serving up ads based on keyword searches. But its profits from such activities are similarly eye-watering.

'We must demand an information economy in which the rising tide raises all boats, because the alternative is unbounded concentration of power… A surveillance economy that is neither sustainable nor democratic.’- Jaron Lanier

Compared with, say, big retailers like Walmart the digital giants employ few people. This is because we – the users of their ‘free services’ – are doing most of their work for them for free. We are data serfs, enthralled to surveillance capitalism by companies that have sneakily and ingeniously extracted vast amounts of raw material from us and are exploiting it for all it’s worth.

Jaron Lanier, techie, musician and visionary author of several books including Who Owns the Future? is calling upon the tech giants to do the right thing and ‘pay people for information gleaned from them’. To social media users he says: ‘You ought to be owed money for the use of that valuable data. It would not exist without you.’

It sounds fine in principle, but the detail on how it would work is rather sketchy. Would it take the form of micro-payments according to your data’s perceived ‘value’? Or a more general scheme like that being discussed in relation to compensating news media for all that quality content they currently provide for free to social platforms to drive traffic and advertising?

As social media users become increasingly disenchanted with being spied upon and exploited by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google, more radical and ethical initiatives are gaining traction.

Minds.com, for example, is a social media network that rewards people for their online engagement while not spying on them or selling their data to third parties.

Launched in 2015, it’s like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in that there is a feed which gets populated with posts. Users can comment, ‘upvote’ and form groups. But unlike Facebook it is open-source, decentralized and operates an ‘autonomous peer-to-peer payment system’. Users are rewarded for their online activity with tokens and can interact with the content of others – sharing, upvoting, commenting – to earn more tokens that are recorded in a bitcoin-like public ledger. Transactions are transparent and content creators are rewarded for their efforts.

Admittedly, it’s all rather idealistic at the moment; payments are not in real money, but in tokens which can be used to push posts, but it might also be turned into a cryptocurrency that could one day be worth real-world money.

Its purpose, says Minds’ CEO Bill Ottman, ‘is to be the opposite of established social media that abuses its users, spies on them, has no transparency, no privacy, no rewards and restricts reach’.

It seems to be working. In August Minds reached 1.25 million members, many escaping from Facebook and Twitter.

It’s part of a wider resistance movement. As Jaron Lanier says: ‘It’s not just that you’re making people rich even if you are not getting rich yourself, but that you are accepting an assault on your own free will, bit by bit. In order to make tech into something that empowers people, people will need to be willing to act as if we can handle being powerful... We must demand an information economy in which the rising tide raises all boats, because the alternative is unbounded concentration of power… A surveillance economy that is neither sustainable nor democratic.’

Payments and rewards alone won’t solve all the evils that plague our digital world – fake news, social media addiction, surveillance, cyberwarfare, subversion of democracy. But with other measures, such as tougher data privacy regulations and support for ethical platforms, it might get us on the road to a fairer, more transparent, democratic and people-powered digital economy.

Maybe the monopolistic, surveillance-based power of the tech titans is weaker than we think.