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The Socialist Republic of Twitter (diegobasch.com)
15 points by dbuthay on Aug 23, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 13 comments

It is an often-missed subtlety of capitalism that a free market must include the existence of privately controlled economies that act in socialist ways. (Apple exerts tyrannical control over its app economy; Netflix's light users subsidize its heavy users; etc.)

Generally, even the most staunch libertarians are okay with such things because the payments and relationships are voluntary, issues like monopoly and free will notwithstanding.

But Twitter, FaceBook and even Google demand a form of somewhat involuntarily payment: time and attention. For some people, mainly the lucrative few who subsidize everyone else, time is much more scarce than money. These virtual "time-pennies" are sliced away in such negligible chunks that lead us to think we're not getting ripped off, but it's siphoning away an economic scarcity nonetheless, and everyone who participates in social media or any ad-supported services (which is asymptotically approaching everyone) pays the tax.

That's what Twitter's new rules really come down to: they couldn't give two figs about ensuring a consistent experience. It's an unsubtle smokescreen for "don't you dare interfere with our ads; that's our bread and butter you're f&*king with." It wouldn't surprise me if after locking down the client apps, they begin an aggressive cat-and-mouse game with ad-block plugins.

Is there anything wrong with any of this? Not inherently. But I'd much rather pay into a semi-socialist freemium service than one where my precious attention is sold to the highest bidder. (Dear App.net: go free-for-most with a paid tier, and you just might take over the world.)

> "Dear App.net: go free-for-most with a paid tier, and you just might take over the world."

I don't think App.net offering a paid tier would protect them from making the same mistakes as Twitter, Facebook, and Google down the road. If they grow to the size of any of those companies, they'd be susceptible to the same forces and temptations that are driving Twitter down its current path.

Yes, that is absolutely true, especially if/when it accepted investment capital or changed hands. But just because it can succumb to those temptations doesn't mean it will, and if it does, someone will start The Next Open Social Service/Protocol, and progress marches on.

Socialism isn't what you appear to think it is.

A privately owned company that provides services subsidized by one group of customers to others for free isn't "socialist" in any meaningful sense. It's still privately owned, it's still driven by profit, there's still money changing hands. It's funded by capitalists who put money in with the hope of seeing a return on their investment. Etc.

It's not impossible to imagine a "socialist Twitter," but that would involve something like it being operated as a venture owned cooperatively by the people who work there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker_cooperative), or as a wholly or partly nationalized enterprise, kind of like how the old Bell System worked from the 1930s until the 1980s.

It's not meant to be taken literally. I'm using a figure of speech called hyperbole to drive a point.

But it actually undermines your point. You're arguing that Twitter as it exists today is somehow inherently "democratic" and run in the public interest because some users subsidize others. And that's just incorrect; those users subsidize the others because it is in their financial interest to do so. They want their ads to show where the eyeballs are, that's all. If the economics changed and it suddenly became more attractive for the paying users (the advertisers) for Twitter to be an exclusive gated community, that's what Twitter would become. It is responsive to market forces, so in that sense it's a very capitalist institution.

Which is not a bad thing! I'm not saying that Twitter employees should run up the red flag and seize control of the means of production. I'm just saying that Twitter is a business, which is to say that it's an enterprise designed to enrich those who set it up. The fact that currently the easiest way to make that happen is to let some people use it free is tangential to that.

You didn't understand my point. The advertisers are not the ones who subsidize users. Users who click on ads subsidize users who don't.

You are also repeating the last part of my post!

Not unless they are clicking on the ads to ensure that Twitter can make money. More likely, they're clicking because they wish the purchase the good or service the advertiser is offering. Consumption is not subsidy. You might as well argue that the chattering masses are subsidizing a viral marketing platform for the consumer goods sector.

You aren't using hyperbole. You're just using language incorrectly. Socialism isn't Twitter's practices taken to extremes - it's something wholly different.

While one western user might be produce more income than a single user in a developing country, that isn't really relevant as long as twitter can provide massive scale at almost no cost. Wealthier users might subsidize ongoing growth and development, but not the operation of the service. This isn't socialism, just economics at work :/

If a wealthy corporation were to buy or even just 'sponsor' twitter, it would probably be worth subsidising just for the good-will effect on their reputation. Especially if they did so as it was being forced into charging.

Google actually did something exactly like this early in their corporate existence, when they bought DejaNews in 2001 (see http://googlepress.blogspot.com/2001/02/google-acquires-usen...).

DejaNews was a company that held the most comprehensive archive of discussions on Usenet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usenet) in the world at that time. Usenet was where public discussions happened online before Web forums, so that database represented an important chunk of early Internet history.

Deja had hoped to turn that database into a monetizable resource, but the bursting of the dot-com bubble ended that dream, and people started worrying that when Deja folded its Usenet archive might be lost forever. So Google stepped in and bought Deja to ensure that its archives would be held by someone who hadn't been crushed by the market collapse. Deja's archives eventually formed the basis of the product that became Google Groups.

There wasn't a lot of business logic to the acquisition; Usenet had been in decline for years by the time Deja sank, so if Google was only interested in a discussion product the Usenet archive wasn't a must-have. Buying Deja was more about saving a key piece of Net history (and putting it under the Google logo) than it was about financial prudence.

Of course, all this was in 2001, before Google went public. Private companies can make charitable gestures like this much more easily than public ones can.

Google would probably consider that if the price were right. They can afford to run Twitter for a while at break-even or a loss, like they did with Gmail or Youtube. It may not be as good a business as Youtube, but for them it would be a nice-to-have like Gmail.

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