The real reason why social media firms will never give up advertising is that’s where their power comes from. They don’t derive their power despite advertisement but because of it.
Let’s do a thought experiment!
Your Facebook account is worth about eight bucks a year in revenue to Facebook. It would be super cheap for you just to pay FB for a totally ad-free experience. Say, a single dollar a month. Just one. Let us presume that this becomes the model for the business, and everyone doesn’t get in a huff over the money and mass migrate to another, still-free service. For the moment.
It’s great for you, right? No more ads! And on the surface, it might even be great for Facebook. Much of FB’s overhead is running server farms for targeting people for advertisements, and they’d get to turn those servers off, lowering their overhead and presumably increasing profitability.
But this is what I believe happened as a user experience with Facebook advertising content is removed from the platform. In a world where the user and the user alone decide what they want to see, because the service no longer has an interest in curating feeds for revenue, they come onto FB, watch a couple of cat videos, catch up with friends and family posts, and leave. Because everyone sees content this way, the number of news articles goes way down, the number of memes goes way down. Now, it’s just you and your friends chatting, the way Facebook was sold to us many years ago. Friends and family connecting.
You’d spend a lot less time on Facebook, though. You drift away or look at it maybe once a week, maybe less often, though you’re probably happier when you look at FB because you are only looking at the content you want to see.
Will this model beat the old model? Let’s now say there are two Facebooks, FB1 and FB2. FB1 is the subscription model with little to no curation of your content, FB2 is the present, ad-driven, AI-optimized model.
On FB1, you show up a few minutes per day or even per week. You leave feeling mildly happy because you are staying in contact with your family and friends. You look pictures of your old bestie’s Grand Canyon hike, pictures of your new niece, isn’t she adorable. You tell everyone you’re a-okay, maybe post some pictures of your new apartment which people enjoy.
On FB2, you show up, and… yes, your friends and family stuff is there, but you’ve got to look for it a bit. So, you’re there more often. And you scroll past a bunch of ads. Some of them make you pause. Some of them make you click. The system is very good at selecting what ads are for you, after all. Sometimes, you repost these “ads,” because they are a lot like news stories or short essays or memes. Other people do the same. Your timeline – you have a timeline, again – is filled with people posting memes on whatever it is that they think is important. The ad-driven AI promotes these to the top of your feed.
Some… well, did your uncle just really post a flat earth meme? So you say, “Uncle, the world is round. The evidence is overwhelming.”
You are right. You know you’re right. In a friendly, loving way, you want to ensure that your uncle doesn’t fall down that rabbit hole. Surely, he can be swayed by all the EVIDENCE.
He says, “That’s all just part of the round earth conspiracy.” He has charts, videos, articles.
Now you find yourself arguing with your uncle. This is stupid. And because you’re arguing with your uncle about the flat earth conspiracy, you’re spending a lot more time on FB2 than FB1. So you are also passing a lot more ad content, including a bunch of ads for people talking about the flat earth conspiracy and all the ways they’ve totally demolished flat earther arguments. So, you click on those articles and videos. I mean, c’mon, this can’t be a thing, right?
Many of those videos are a kind of extended conversation with flat earthers on platforms like FB2 and YouTube. They are never about people being convinced of the round earth point of view. But they sure do own those flat earthers!
So, you send some of those to your timeline. You probably don’t realize that your uncle got there the same way, that they saw something once, made a comment about something related to flat earthism, so he started seeing stories and videos in his timeline. It probably has nothing to do with the shape of the earth, few people are actually qualified to tell the shape one way or the other if we’re being honest, but it struck a chord because he probably has a limited education and feels like educated elites condescend to him. Which, if you do the research, is the driving force behind flat earthism – people are upset that high-status people have the power to tell them what is and what is not true. Whatever a scientist says is automatically truer than what they say, and it isn’t like scientists aren’t wrong all the time, particularly when they stray from their areas of expertise. (A particular example of this could be found in the highly-influential book The Bell Curve, which absolutely posits that people with advanced degrees are far more generally intelligent than people who do not have such degrees and that people are better off listening to their more intelligent peers. Even in the process of the book being discredited, well, it was discredited by people with advanced degrees. It was two groups of guys with Ph.Ds arguing about the premise of the book, which outsiders might see as confirmation that the system is, in fact, rigged against normal people. Even when researchers and scientists are wrong, they only pay attention to each other, and we must pay attention to them.)
But your uncle isn’t talking about how he feels condescended to by the “liberal elite.” And neither are you. You’re trying to use facts to change someone’s opinion about a subject whose roots are emotional.
I use this example because I have, in the past, used flat earth debunking videos to amuse myself when I am, for instance, sick and looking for unchallenging, bite-sized humor bits to pass the time. Few of them are about the reasons why flat earthers believe what they do but simply make fun of them for believing it. There are stories, papers, and videos that talk about why people believe in conspiracy theories, but the algorithms used by the major social media companies don’t promote them. I hypothesize that they aren’t anger-making. There are no flat earther response videos to sociologists saying that the best way to handle flat earthers is to address the underlying reasons why anyone adopts a conspiracy theory, such as expanding access to social and mental health services. That flat earthism is, essentially, a cry for help. Stories, articles, and videos that discuss flat earthism and conspiracy theories are sociological phenomena unrelated to earth or space science are ignored by both people posting “evidence” of a flat earth and people who are discrediting flat earth “evidence.”
The response received from social media sources about flat earthism is that you should try to convince them with facts. And driven by the structure of social media, on FB2, that’s what you do. To your goddamn uncle. A man you’ve known your whole life, whom you fucking love. You berate him publicly for his ignorance.
And FB1? You haven’t looked there in weeks.
Now, imagine this again from the company’s side. Even if both FB1 and FB2 make the same amount of money, which do the aggressive, acquisitive, capitalist owners of Facebook want to run? The one where, yes, they make money but give up a lot of power over people’s lives. Or the one that allows them to influence the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of many millions of people?
And, of course, advertisers and other actors who wish to use the FB2 model will also argue heavily in its favor. It is worth it to them to have FB2 and to be sure you use it.
Even though it would be quite possible to make a social media service on pennies a day – and probably quite a lot less, really – it won’t happen. The power of social media doesn’t arise from its profitability but from its ability to influence public opinion.