As the number of Facebook users drops in the wake of the #deletefacebook meme, along with a plunge in the value of shares in the company that has dominated social media for more than a decade, it’s time to re-evaluate online networking and come up with a more sustainable model.
Facebook has been a great platform – for getting messages across, organising campaigns, instigating social change, coordinating refugee relief efforts, and much, much more. It has become woven into the fabric of everyday life for so many with our entire roster of friends and family there. So how could we leave? How could we break what has become an addiction habit for so many?
In the wake of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica debacle, it’s become clear that the model of social media as an advertising platform is unsustainable, built as it is on monetising data. The past week has exposed it as a key pillar in surveillance capitalism geared towards shareholder profit.
The Frankenstein syndrome has come home to roost. Facebook was surely not fully aware of the monster it had created, a free model that placed at its heart the fact that those users who celebrate its free status are the ones whose personal information, preferences, gripes, confessions and passions are used as equity in the context of a huge advertising corporation.
Allowing the harvesting of personal data for commercial purposes left many uncomfortable and Facebook’s complacency in handling this left it wide open to exploitation by rogue elements leading, as we have now seen, to a shockingly sinister impact on global politics.
The impact and implications of us choosing a digital advertising platform as our presumed safe space in which to spill all our most intimate thoughts, hopes, fears and passions are only now being realised. It creates a forum in which the owners of a gigantic operation rule the social media world (arguably the world) for their own ends and for shareholder profit.
While Facebook might have started out with good intentions, it is giving the impression of being mind-bogglingly naive in facing up to the potential abuses inherent in its flawed commercial model. There is no getting away from the reason for its existence - to exploit personal data.
Until we have a very different, much more mutual model at the heart of our networking experience, we will end up with rogue elements trying to play the system for their own gains and, as we’ve just seen, potentially opening the door to corruption on a huge scale.
Social networking needs a new model that doesn't exploit but works for the good of all: community based, mutualised, advertising-free. Only then will we get something real and honest that isn't based on algorithms, selling as a priority, engagement and clickbait, along with all the other distasteful stuff that has become part and parcel of Facebook.
The future of social networking is actually quite simple. It must lie in a smarter business model that is free of algorithms and advertising and doesn’t harvest and exploit data.
It should be based around a ‘pay what you feel’ membership contribution (minimum £20 a year or the equivalent of half a cup of coffee a month). The membership would sustain the development of new technological standards and innovation and would enhance collective involvement through the act of building something together.
Those who really can’t afford a membership contribution can still write and request a free subsidised membership.
It should have community at its heart – working towards social change and building resources together for the good of all. A kudos scheme would reward engagement for time investment with profit shares to the most active members once there is profit.
This social media platform would encourage its members to host local events – real life, face-to-face meetings running in parallel to online activity – where conversation and calls to action galvanise local communities to act.
It should enshrine a constitution that recognises that we, as prospective members, are all stakeholders – we’re all working to build something that everyone has an interest in making successful.
By becoming a member, each person helps develop collective vision through direct input and by voting on key matters within a modern social enterprise context (a community interest company).
The paradigm shift necessary to create a new model of social networking is dependent on a parallel shift already taking place – one that defines new parameters for how we interact and how we give space to one another. Our era’s focus on personal development has a key part to play in how we might build a social enterprise together.
George Monbiot talked in his recent book ‘Out of The Wreckage’ about the ongoing move from ‘extrinsic’ to ‘intrinsic’ in our mindset. He asks what does the good life—and the good society—look like in the twenty-first century? For him, and many others, it’s a recognition and a reckoning. Monbiot describes it thus: “A toxic ideology rules the world – of extreme competition and individualism. It misrepresents human nature, destroying hope and common purpose. Only a positive vision can replace it, a new story that re-engages people in politics and lights a path to a better world.”
This vision involves changing the mindset from competition, celebrity, pursuit of profit at the expense of others and getting as much as we can by paying as little as possible, to a viewpoint that is mindful of what we can contribute and build collectively as an alternative.
Almost by default, these newly defined values and principles at the heart of a new social network create a new politics: a ‘politics of belonging’, as Monbiot described it. Democracy, economics and community life can all be radically reorganised from the bottom up by starting at grass roots level, “enabling us to take back control and overthrow the forces that have thwarted our ambitions for a better society”.
We become an eco-system that changes as it learns, a new networked philosophy that replaces the traditional capitalist default.
We need to ask ourselves: Do I have some key views and opinions? How can I enhance the debate? Do I have some wisdom to share with others?
The network would be funded by membership, not external businesses and organisations or by selling data in return for a percentage of sales. It would be financially self-supporting, primarily via membership and events, and with any major investment potentially sourced through crowdfunding. It would, fundamentally and crucially, be open and transparent.
We are clearly seeing the ‘trap’ of free, and its inevitable consequences as users’ data becomes the product. How to make a social network work as a sustainable economic model in a rapidly changing world is the challenge. While Google and Facebook created a new way for advertisers to reach highly targeted audiences as they search for and read relevant content, formal advertising became outmoded and intrusive. The same, or similar results can be achieved via nurturing personal relationships, dialogue, interaction and endorsement, empowering others by giving them a collaborative platform from which to do business. And doing this through a membership model. Most of us need to feel part of something.
As Dmitri Leonov argued in Mashable: "There’s a lot to be said for creating something of real value and charging money for it. If you’re not charging for your product, then your users are the product. By charging nothing for your service you’re actually anchoring that value in your customer’s mind, making it harder to raise the price later.” In fact, why not go a step further and not even think of this project as a ‘product’, a ‘service’, but a membership, a club where ‘users’ are more valuable, they are ‘members’, involved and guiding the project with an outcome to reward all. What I’m proposing is that the users become the stakeholders rather than merely ‘users’.
The future is all about sustainable business models for web democratisation, communities founded around a de-centralised network, equitable post-capitalist models rather than shareholder profit-maximising top-down elites. The Observer’s John Naughton recently looked into his crystal ball and predicted that "the rise of ad-blocking will force us to confront the fact that the free lunch provided by advertising is not long for this world. The good news is that the ensuing crisis will compel us finally to look for what we should have invented decades ago, namely sustainable business models for the web. For example, it’s possible that cryptocurrencies might enable the ‘micro-payments' that would make users pay for any article they read. We need more ideas like that, and I’m sure we’ll get them. Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Why not go a stage further? It's one thing to look at micropayment for articles, a wider vision altogether to promote the idea of an ecosystem that creates and defines its own news agenda, becomes a publisher and a broadcaster with a social network at its core, retaining its integrity and working for the benefit of all. That requires belief, trust and love. After all is said and done, the word 'love' has to be on the agenda. It was a comment from a friend – “the love factor is missing from social networking” – that convinced me, as much as anything, that the time was right to blueprint a social network whose love factor isn’t actually as fluffy as it might sound, one that works around a pragmatic and achievable mutualism enshrined in a social enterprise context, one that works for the good of all and is built on an affordable, sustainable model.
Although social networking is evolving fast, there is a growing desire for fewer throwaway status updates, and a move towards more considered posts and accurate information gathering as a resource. Some may argue that social media is democratising politics and certainly younger users look increasingly to social media for their connections and newsfeed now.
Inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee said this week “It’s up to all of us to build a web that reflects our hopes and fulfils our dreams more than it magnifies our fears and deepens our divisions.” After this urgently-needed reality check, we must surely move towards a more community based social enterprise model that reflects where society needs to go – one rooted in the notion that "together we can create something amazing" not "what can I get out of this?”