Social Media

Why social media is like the railways – and must be saved?

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Written by Kamil Arli

The Guardian Columnist Paul Mason wrote an article on social Media

Even if you’re not a rock band or a DJ, at some point in your online life you’ll have encountered the little orange cloud and a grey waveform: Soundcloud’s distinctive visual signature. The Berlin-based music service started as a super-cool platform for people who made music and wanted to share it. Last week, its owners admitted it was losing a million dollars a week, and could run out of cash before the end of the year.

SOUNDCLOUD IS IN TROUBLE DESPITE SIGNING LICENSING DEALS

Soundcloud is in trouble despite signing licensing deals with the major record labels, despite accumulating 175 million users worldwide, and despite the big labels taking a significant ownership stake. The whole future of the little orange cloud now rests on whether it can get people to subscribe – for money.

In the same week, another achingly cool online publisher, this time of blogs, Medium, also hit trouble. It laid off 50 employees, closed offices in Washington and New York, and admitted its original plan – to make money out of advertising – wasn’t working. Worse than that, the company’s boss, Twitter founder Ev Williams, admitted he had no idea what model the company would adopt next. When Medium started in 2012, Williams warned, in a now-prophetic post, that the commercialisation of content on the internet “causes increasing amounts of misinformation”.

THE SEARCH FOR A COMMERCIAL MODEL THAT REWARDS DEPTH

Four years on, the search for a commercial model that rewards depth, originality and truth has – in this case – failed. Ad-driven business models are incentivising the wrong, the crass, the derivative, the stupid; and because all business models in the digital world aspire towards the creation of monopoly, not diversity, the tendency is much worse than in the era of pulp fiction on paper, or musical pap on vinyl.

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Both Soundcloud and Medium are led by talented people, and have had large amounts of venture capital thrown at them. Both are essentially up against the same problem, which Williams identified with brutal honesty. The sharing capacities of the internet are being overwhelmed by the profit models of large corporations. The tsunami of crap, fake news, celebrity gossip and plastic music that has taken over social media is killing it – or rather killing the spirit in which it flowered six or seven years ago.

IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND WHY CONTENT PRODUCERS ARE LURED TOWARDS

If you want to understand why content producers are lured towards public platforms, consider the achievement of Channel 4 News (where I used to work). They ditched words and static pictures online in favour of video only, then pushed everything on to Facebook. In 18 months they grew their Facebook audience from five million a month to 200 million. Did they change the content to make it happen? You bet: a quarter of all videos are posted “square” to avoid smartphone users having to turn their devices sideways; then subtitled, to avoid those same users having to turn the sound up.

Only a churl would complain about the results: two-thirds of the viewers of these stories are under 35 – exactly the audience TV news does not reach. And the most viewed stories were from Aleppo. But anybody who has produced content primarily aimed at Facebook, or YouTube, will understand the new meaning of the word “didactic”. Whether it’s a news story or a short fictional movie, the pressure is intense to explain everything “as if for idiots”, to hammer all the content into the first 15 seconds, and to make everything as short as possible.

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THE SAME PRESSURE EXISTS EVERYWHERE CREATORS HAVE JOINED THE RUSH

The same pressure exists everywhere creators have joined the rush towards the giant online platforms. Yet with the exception of Facebook, most of the monopoly platforms are not profitable. YouTube just about breaks even for its owner Google; Spotify made a $164m loss on $2bn sales, according to its last results. Twitter is so far off making a profit it has become, itself, an acquisition target for either Facebook or Google.

The history of both culture and capitalism indicate what should happen next. The monopolies should be broken up. If Facebook were a bank, it could not exist; nor Google if it were a supermarket. Yet the structure of hedge-fund-driven modern capitalism (which incentivises the creation of monopolies), together with political cronyism, makes this unlikely. Venture capital pours into startups like Medium and Soundcloud on the understanding that they will become either the next Newscorp, or the next Spotify – or that they will be acquired by a giant rival.

The US government, or the European Commission, could – in theory – order the breakup of the tech monopolies and the creation of, say, four Facebooks obliged to interchange information with each other, and let you move accounts seamlessly, just as banks do. But dream on: governments across the world have become captured in practice by the pre-Rooseveltian ideology of PayPal founder Peter Thiel: competition is for losers, monopoly is good.

So the solutions lie with us, the users – especially those who believe the purpose of “content” is to communicate first and make money second. We need to save what we can of social media as it was originally conceived.

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If you visit the ailing internet platforms – not just Soundcloud and Medium but Ello, a wannabe rival to Facebook, and Tumblr – you can still glimpse flashes of the beauty collaboration brings. Ello, after starting brightly and fading, has become a functional online community for artists, architects and photographers. Tumblr, even after being acquired by Yahoo and deluged by porn, remains one of the best-designed spaces for communication through montage. If you crave a respite from the antisemitism and misogyny of Twitter, or the firehose of corporate propaganda on Facebook, it’s worth returning to any one of these struggling platforms, firing up your long-forgotten ID, and revelling in the chaos.

It will feel a bit like time travel – back to the period around 2010-12, when social media was associated with postmodernity, self-produced music and revolt, not fake news, white supremacy and rule by old men. But usage alone will not save the collaborative tools. We need new, cooperative ownership models. If basic word processors are effectively now shipped free with every device, so too could be a nonprofit music-sharing service, a free blogging platform and a place to keep in contact with our friends, without intrusive data-farming and a deluge of ads.

Medium, Soundcloud and ultimately Twitter are – like the railways – worth saving even if they cannot be run at a profit. 2017 can and should be a year in which the users of platforms reclaim these freedoms not as privileges but as rights.

 

About the author

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Kamil Arli

Editor of DigitalReview.co. Digital Media Consultant

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