The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook and its use to inform micro-targeted online campaigns, exposed the power of the manipulation of big data. The ethics of the traditional social network business model have been debated in Parliament and the US Congress.
The issue stemmed from the reality that commonly, users of social networks are not just consumers but rather the product (or at least their data is).
One particularly telling exchange at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Congress hearing made this clear. Asked how Facebook operates a business model which is free at the point of use, Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads.” Facebook sells its ability to target users’ social feeds for a fee to advertisers.
The tailoring and targeting of services, advertising and information around the users based on their personal data can be useful and mutually beneficial.
In the 2014 book How Google Works, written by two of the company’s executives, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, they refer to their pleasure on being delivered advertising specifically related to their needs, when the ad targeting system AdWords programme was first integrated into Google’s email system, Gmail.
However, some new start-up social networks are challenging the way the way in which platforms use our information.
Sphere, which describes itself as a “decentralised social network”, began development in 2016, and empowers its users to benefit financially from the use of their data by third parties.
This goal is achieved through the use of Social Activity Tokens, powered by the cryptocurrency Ethereum, which users can trade to sell their data, and access data of other users. This system is fully integrated throughout the network with users directly rewarded for sharing their data.
Another social network of this new breed is Minds, which also allows its users to earn from using the platform albeit in a different way. Minds measures its users’ daily contributions and then proportionally awards tokens from a Daily Awards Pool, which can in turn be exchanged for cryptocurrency.
Directly transacting currency for social media use is a novel idea, and one which seeks to reclaim the impact of one’s data footprint. Both Sphere and Minds have a similar appearance to and features of social media market leaders like Facebook and Twitter, and put ownership and the real value of data back into the users’ hands.
The key to the success of these challenger platforms is whether they can attract enough users away from the incumbent major networks, in order to make their ecosystems viable beyond that as a curiosity.
Recent consideration of the societal responsibilities of major social platforms and corporations, for which advertising is a key part of their business, has changed the way consumers view the use and treatment of their online data.
The emergence of new kinds of social networks show there is an alternative to the traditional social media business model. The reclaimed data autonomy for users at the heart of this innovation introduces the possibility of more socially conscious, as well as effective, interaction between brands and consumers.