I remember when social media sites were first set up. They invited us to join for free, to exchange messages, pictures and other snapshots of our lives with friends scattered far and wide over the planet. When I signed up for Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I thought this was an excellent way of keeping in touch with the people I had met in the many corners of the world where I had lived or travelled to. I even started contributing original content for free in order to keep the channel alive—we all did. And we saw the means of promoting ourselves and our occupations (especially for self-employed ones among us like artists, writers and musicians) without falling prey to big corporate costs for such promotion, costs that hitherto had shut us out of traditional media.
Then something started to happen. Venture capitalists and other funding sources started reeling in the endless supply of funds to these social media sites, saying “Grow up boys, and pay your rent, now.” So, the Social Media sites started to take on advertizing to supplement their income. Their promise to advertisers: a captive audience that could be segmented in a myriad of different ways with sophisticated algorithms, and fed advertisements based on taste, geography, budget etc., at the click of a button and at a relatively low cost. They left the traditional media in the dust when it came to reach, relevance and cost.
Then something else started to happen. Bad guys cottoned onto how effective social media could be if they could infiltrate it with their own messaging that could help influence the outcome of public opinion and policy, national elections, and human behaviour. Very soon we saw people meeting at parties and retreating to their handhelds, people talking across the table via Messenger, pornography becoming a staple with no age barrier and differentiated only by which brand one consumed, and wild card politicians being elected to office thanks to third party influencers in social media.
When the regulators started to grumble about how powerful the tech companies were becoming and began applying retail tax laws to them just as they did for bricks and mortar operators, and threatened further regulation, the tech companies decided to put on a good corporate citizen face and capitalize further on the situation. They came back promising the following to: (1) favour personal content over promotional content for users in order to “restore the platform to its original intent.” (2) restrict promotional content to paid advertizing only, thereby getting more revenue from those independent artists, writers and musicians who previously promoted to friends and followers without having to pay for advertizing; there was no mention of how frequently this revamped paid advertizing would be hoisted upon the user base—i.e. more often than before, or less often? (3) hint that advertizing rates would increase because viewership was expected to drop due to #1 above. The bottom line from these changes: prices are going up, effectiveness is going down; advertisers and users lose, social media platform wins!
My old guru used to say, “Beware when they come and offer sweets outside the school gates. The candy could be laced with drugs, and you will become an addict very quickly.” That analogy is true here too. We were sucked in with the promise of becoming famous for free. Now it’s payback time and the fledgling social media company start-ups, that we helped grow into large corporations, have got us by the short and curlies, and we are hooked without any means of disengaging. We haven’t learnt much have we? My old guru must be turning in his grave.