6 things tsū can tell us about how social media work

5 Nov

Tsū is the latest social media platform claiming to be an alternative to Facebook. What’s new about Tsū is that it will apparently pay you to use the service. That’s right, not only is it free to use but you’ll actually make money by using it. Well, if it sounds too good to be true it almost certainly is. However, there are some reasons why tsū is an important example and why it says a lot about what mainstream social media are and how we can define alternatives.

1. If it’s free to use, then you’re the commodity…

A lot of people seem to think that the way Facebook makes money is by owning the content you create (the photos, etc.) and selling them to advertisers. This is not how it works. Facebook isn’t selling content to advertisers, it is selling future clicks on adverts. Based on what you have clicked on in the past, Facebook sells a profile of predicted future clicks. TV advertising works in exactly the same way, and the concept of the audience commodity has been used by theorists like Christian Fuchs to explain how Facebook makes its money. The main difference is that with TV advertising, companies had to do the work of creating demographic profiles of audiences and using these to determining programme and time-specific prices. With Facebook, you do all of this work; all Facebook needs to do is track your clicks and how long you dwell on content, package this data and sell you, as a potential clicker to advertisers. You do (almost) all of the work and Facebook gets (completely) all of the revenue.

2. … but not that much of a commodity.

One fact of this model is that the advertising revenue per user is miniscule. Facebook only makes money from this because it has so many users – so many potential clicks – to sell. In fact, you can actually work out how much money you’ve made for Facebook. Dutch journalist Peter Olsthoorn has a site where you can input your user characteristics and see how much Facebook owes you. And, it’s not much. A long-term, heavy user, liking brands and using Facebook as a passport to log into other sites (giving them even more user data) has only generated $250 of advertising revenue. That’s a pretty small amount given the number of hours spent on Facebook this represents. But of course Facebook has around 1.3 billion users as of October 2014, so even based on infrequent users this still adds up to a lot in revenue, especially given that the labour that goes to generate it is unpaid.

Well, actually you’ll make less than a penny on tsu as well.

3. Tsū makes this economy of scale clear, and also why you’ll never benefit from it.

Tsū claims, although it’s in no way clear how, that once you rack up $100 in advertising revenue for shared and liked content (again using these shares and likes as data to create potential clicks in the future) you can bank this money. That sounds great, until you realise how much labour you would actually have to perform to get it. Amanda Blain has worked out that even on highly shared content, you’re likely to earn less than one cent per day on tsū. At that rate it would take about 28 years to reach the $100 mark required to cash in your chips. So it doesn’t seem like anyone but tsū, even at their 10% of revenue, will be making any money any time soon.

4. It’s a scam.

There’s also the question of what they’ll be doing with the money your posts have raised before you hit the $100 mark. Will it sit in a bank somewhere with your name on it? Will tsū take it as profit knowing full well that you’ll never see any of it? I’m going to go for the latter option. Tsū also has to pay back the $7 million loan from venture capitalists Sancus Capital Prive. As Blain highlights, running a social network and paying the return on that investment doesn’t look possible on 10% of advertising revenues. Basically, tsū is just a version of Facebook that dangles the carrot of financial reward. It was most likely set up as a short-term project to capitalise on the hype of a platform that pays in order to make some profit for its owners (it is a commercial business after all, that’s what they exist for). It’ll vanish in a few months or years, no one will get anywhere near the $100 mark and we’ll have spent time and effort we might as well have spent on Facebook. In this sense, it’s clearly a scam.

5. Tsū isn’t an alternative to Facebook.

Facebook’s death is predicted fairly regularly. While things are slowing down for Facebook, the fact that there isn’t a viable alternative means that it’s unlikely we’ll see the end of it any time soon. Tsū, despite all its claims to the contrary, is no alternative to Facebook. It’s just the same platform, with the same model for extracting profit from the labour of its users. It hints at some version of redistribution of wealth as payment for this labour, but even if it were to ever pay out, the scale of the platform means that users won’t ever get that much. This isn’t like workers in a factory getting a share of the value of the products they produce. The value only avoids being negligible because of the number of users. For each user, it’s close to zero. This highlights the limits of this kind of left-liberal capitalism when it comes to information commodities and the scale of social networks.

6. So what would an alternative look like?

An alternative to Facebook, one that really challenges what’s wrong with Facebook (and unpaid labour is just one on a long list), can’t reproduce the way Facebook makes money but with a nod to redistribution thrown in. A social media platform that really rejects the financial exploitation at the heart of Facebook and other platforms needs to take the audience commodity out of the equation. Or rather, it needs to take the equation out of the practice. An alternative to Facebook and tsū must negate the idea that a social network is there to generate data which is sold to advertisers.

Social media platforms help facilitate practices that have a value to the people involved in them; not a monetary value but a social value. The forms of communication and organisation offered by social media are potentially wonderful things and platforms need to exist that allow them to happen. Running platforms demands money, at least at the moment: aside from server space, there are people who should receive fair wages for the work they put into designing and maintaining such platforms. Rejecting the current practice of turning the users into commodities, some other way of raising funds should be considered. Perhaps a small fee from users, or a voluntary donation to support the infrastructure behind alternative social media is the answer. Ello’s turning to venture capital funding is clearly a non-starter and doesn’t solve any problems (the capitalist investors need to be paid back somehow, and if not by selling audience commodities then how?).

Either way, what the example of tsū shows is that profit and exploitation are at the heart of mainstream social media platforms. Alternatives need to negate this and avoid using the data collected from use behaviour to create audience commodities that are sold to advertisers. This isn’t the only element that needs to be taken into account when designing genuinely alternative platforms, but it is a key one, especially as no social media platform will be able to exist without some kind of paid labour. Tsū clearly isn’t the answer, but its failure does help show what an answer needs to involve.

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