James Ward is a lawyer, privacy advocate, and fan of listing things in threes. Nothing he says here should be considered legal advice/don’t get legal advice from social media posts. He promises he’s not as smug as he looks in his profile picture.
Hello and welcome back to the Bright newsletter! This week we’re thinking about the ways that social media is changing right before our very eyes. One of the fascinating aspects of the Musk Era at Twitter and the continuing metamorphosis at Meta is that we see innovations and changes playing out in real time. Or, at least, that’s what it’s meant to look like. On closer inspection, what we really see is theories and innovations partially rolled out, as long as they don’t conflict with the primary purpose of the social networks – the collection of data and the sale of ads.
The best example of this is the phase-in of paid subscription services. Although Twitter Blue predates Musk, it was really after his arrival that paid subscriptions for Twitter became a genuine phenomenon. Between the pricing scenarios, the glitches, and the overall failure to demonstrate the value proposition, it’s safe to say that the early rollout of Twitter Blue was less than a stellar success. At the same time, it demonstrated a belief both at the senior levels of management at Twitter and in the investment community in general that paid subscriptions to social media was something that made sense. After all, if it was an absolutely outlandish idea, it’s unlikely that even Musk supporters would have lauded its arrival.
Consider, too, the rollout of paid verifications at Facebook. Now, instead of anyone-can-be-anyone on Meta's platforms, for $8 or 12 or $15 a month, it looks like there will be some manner of verification to ensure that people are who they claim to be. We can stock this up to the resurgence of interest in validated identity in the wake of the early bluecheck disasters with Twitter Blue. When anyone can be verified it means that the occupational and reputational risks are pretty high.
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So do we think that the rollout of these new platforms herald something new and good at the larger social networks? Of course not: they're still Facebook and Twitter. But what they reveal is an interesting trend -- is the growth of awareness in social media users of the need for trust. Blue checks used to be about prestige, and chasing a blue check was something you did when you reached a certain number of followers or had attained a certain degree of notoriety. But with the disappearance of the prestige-based validation system, we’re now in a place where what people really seem to want is assurance that whoever is on the other side of the checkmark is who they say they are.
This is a premise that underlies much of what Bright is about. It means trust in the network, it means trust in other people, and it means trust in the information that’s being delivered by both. The latter is a consequence of the former. Put another way, you’ll get trust in the information being shared if you feel like you can trust the network and trust the people on it. That’s where validated identity and verifications on Twitter and Facebook are always going to fall short -- not least because they're only validating some identities. If you can always just create a new fake account, the entire value of verified identity is lost.
The bigger problem for the big socials is that even if people pay for validated identity, you’re still a validated identity. . . on Facebook or on Twitter. Their underlying business model (ad sales) is not going to disappear, nor is their deeply troubling approach to privacy, which is, in short, there isn't any meaningful approach at all. As such, people will be paying for the privilege of having their data bundled and sold off to third-party advertisers. And, thanks to Facebook’s Pixel system, advertisers may not deliver ads on Facebook itself, but will continue to deliver target ads literally everywhere else, because most websites (and many brick-and-mortar stores!) use Pixel-tracking technology. So, you’re not escaping Facebook ads or Twitter‘s ads if you pay for the removal of advertisements on a validated blue check account you’re just pushing them off to other platforms.
Moreover, from a solidarity point of view, this whole program seems designed to create second- and third-tier user experiences. For everyone who isn’t paying, they get all of the ads and all of the privacy-stealing tools, but none of the safeguards. Twitter has gone so far as to remove two-factor authentication on cell phones for anyone who isn’t a Twitter Blue subscriber. Yikes.
As far as visions to contrast with Bright, the differences could hardly be more stark. Rather than a multi-tiered, exploitative, AI-driven miasma, Bright's offering is based on community trust, reliability, and genuine interest. It’s fascinating to us that paid subscriptions to social networks, something that we were among the first to seriously propose two years ago, has now gone mainstream. We’re not holding our breath for the values-driven approach to running social networks to take root at the big platforms, but frankly, we don’t need it to. As Bright grows it will become the norm, and that’s a development we’re very excited to see.
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