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Should we still post to the internet for free?
I've easily shared >1M posts to boards and forums. But the internet has changed since the 90s and our contributions are now strip-mined. Perhaps we shouldn't...
“The individual investor should act consistently as an investor and not as a speculator.”
In an age where social platforms have become an integral part of our lives, a growing debate surrounds the question of whether these platforms should compensate their users for ideas. Management issues aside, and not the point of today’s post, Twitter is paying me, a normal but prolific poster and not someone famous, $500-1,000 a month to post. Why is LinkedIn not doing this? What about Facebook? The answer to both is not that they can’t, it’s that their users probably will never ask the question. But at some point, people should ask why they are digital sharecroppers without any revenue sharing, in places that extract value from them and now provide very little, if anything in return. I don’t mean owning stock in these companies or getting a passive dividend check based on how much you own. I mean, an active work model based on a share of revenue for the quantitative results of your publishing.
At one point the intangible, non-monetary value we received back from these companies was worth it. This was in the early days of these sites. But the creeping forces of optimization biased to monetization for advertisers and company profit has changed the calculus here. And simply providing network effects companies were gifted for being ‘early’ to the internet is just not enough value for the user any longer. We can’t even organically share links on these sites freely, they wholesale don’t get shown, as large social has pulled the drawbridge on organic traffic. They also do not allow us to export the lists or communities we built. We are the frog, and we have been boiled.
Multi-billion dollar companies are actively throttling our work and links as part of a revenue-generating machine. It’s not like an indie forum where we were there purely as community contributors in the classical sense. We’re all actively being algo de-ranked in favor of advertisers and direct revenue for a company against our work. So, the large sites are no longer the digital saloon and are now just hyper-capitalist, ad-driven panopticons. Perhaps they’ve not been for some time, and we’ve been in denial. Unlike some who lean socialist, I’m actually okay with this, but only if we too receive compensation. This better aligns the top % of users with the company long term. I do not believe this creates any incongruence with the indirect and organic upside of participation.
Cory Doctorow describes the creeping process against user-centricity as ‘enshittification’ (certainly descriptive) and although we’re used to this in physical space through things like shrinkflation, running such a playbook online appears extremely shortsighted. Basically you’re just going to succeed in making the power users of the internet hate you. Maybe these companies forgot how the internet works, and that things like organic hyperlinks provide a positive user experience.
These companies have broken an unwritten Internet social contract, we built them and they pulled up the ladder. Links and traffic are the lifeblood of the web. So it’s time, I think, for active users to self-reflect, and start seeing rev sharing as table stakes. Not as a ‘top program’ for selected users; this should be apolitical and scaled to everyone who would like to opt-in and meets some kind of minimum, but achievable threshold. The world is difficult enough here with inflation and rising healthcare, education and housing costs. People are stuck and the deck has become badly stacked for many across demographics. Even a small amount of MRR would be material for a certain cohort, and feel fair for their time. Things may only get harder and the government run by a well-to-do gerontocracy certainly isn’t stepping in here, tech actually could do some good. Google already does via YouTube with a pretty fair revenue split (55% for creators). No matter what happens with Twitter/X I think it’s also setting a good precedent and potential future model. Facebook is actually going the other way: and there’s news this week they’re testing charging $14 a month for EMEA users, but they won't share any ad rev, and they'll still throttle links. It’s incredibly dystopian and shortsighted, they’re not Netflix and it’s not like you need to use that site for Internet access (basically a Prodigy-like model, but without the actually utility). Personally, I'd rather stick a fork in an electrical socket than pay meta MRR to see influencer selfies.
The first image used in this post was generated by OpenAI’s Dall-E. None of the AI tools are going to compensate us for training their products, and they probably shouldn’t be the ones to do this. That should happen closer to where original content is created, and is an opportunity for big tech which sits next to brand dollars to incentivize end users more to create. Regardless of what they do, users reading this have plenty of power here in choosing how we contribute. The world is becoming more capitalist, not less, and so perhaps we should be acting like rational capitalist actors here as well. We don’t currently.
What to do next (tl;dr: stop being exploited)
We should be deeply critical of where we spend our time online in the new economy. And, we likely shouldn't be giving away so much time and creativity for free any longer. These platforms only exist due to your ideas, it’s what keeps users engaged and attracts advertisers. When users contribute valuable content, they are essentially providing these companies with free gasoline for their machine. It used to be a symbiotic relationship, but more one-sided every day. Our value is just not coming back to us.
I understand many of us are on these places to connect and get intangible value, but if you are a top % contributor, you are also a reason people come back to that platform daily and deserve at least a small amount of recurring revenue. It forces a re-alignment of incentives and makes you a real stakeholder, not an unpaid digital sharecropper. Why shouldn't 100 billion dollar companies that tax all of corporate America do this? They also could easily make it so you don't have to opt in if you don't want (some can’t due to work reasons) and that makes sense. How these companies setup such a structure is less the point of today’s post. Again more than this, I think we, the end users, should be electing to spend time online differently. If only due to a shifting ethos of how the web and world is run.
Since I have a day job, the small amount I make in revenue from the few sites that share it acts as a stimulus that I use to subscribe to other creators trying to make a go at things independently. This revenue would be used by others similarly. Convinced revenue share here is such an incredible net good for the internet economy and independent creators who are scraping by vs further piling up corporate war chests and to wealthy technology executives who feast on our collective work daily. They will all be fine regardless.
While social value and online connections are essential, they can no longer be used as excuses to avoid compensating users for their time as platforms now massively throttle organic benefits. Simply put, the way these systems have evolved has invalidated this exchange. Companies that recognize the creator economy and the value of those at the top of the participation inequality graph deserve to be directly compensated should be ones we root for. And the top creators should continue to spend less time on platforms who basically see them just as non-paid digital sharecroppers. In a world that's increasingly extractive of our value and time providing users with even a modest share of profits seems like a just and sensible proposition. And if not, we can simply vote by participating elsewhere.
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