The Socialist Republic of Twitter

I attended a Machine Learning meetup at Twitter yesterday. It was a very good event, and I learned a few new things. The presentation about ads by Kumar Chellapilla was particularly interesting, and one point stuck with me. In a nutshell, Kumar explained that:

  • Twitter wants to remain freely accessible to everyone in the world.
  • The only known way to accomplish this is by monetizing the service with ads.

Let’s think about the implications of this. Because we live in a world where the distribution of income is highly skewed, a small number of users have most of the dinero. These users are the ones who keep ad-supported businesses alive. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume ads do a good job at matching consumers and advertisers, and that everyone is equally permeable to them. Oversimplifying a bit, you could say that the small minority of Twitter’s users with the highest income are subsidizing the poor masses: the people who wouldn’t buy products or services even if they clicked on ads. In other words, my dear readers, Twitter (or Facebook, for that matter) is a socialized service provided globally by a corporation.

Che Tweetara

Is this bad? No, I think it’s awesome. If you are a teenager from a poor country with lots of interesting things to say, a bunch of fat Americans and Europeans are clicking on ads so that you can have a voice. Be thankful for that girl your age who clicked on #JustinBieberLuv4Ever or something, and ended up buying a concert ticket.

What is the problem, then? I’m glad I asked. The problem is that corporations respond to their shareholders, so most of us don’t have a say in their policy. This is a socialist plutocracy (!) If for some reason a month from now Twitter discovers that it can make a fortune by somehow charging for the service, it will happen. You and the richest Twitterer in the world may pay the same monthly fee. He may earn it in a second, it may take you two hours. You’ll tweet about uprisings in Egypt while she shares pictures of Louis Vuitton’s finest products. Same with censorship; if Europe threatens to block Twitter unless they filter out the word Greece, Twitter will probably do it (and probably Italy too, for good measure). And, worst of all, what if Twitter discovers that it simply cannot sustain its business with ads? Will they appeal to the US government for a subsidy? Even if they do, it won’t happen: they are not a public utility, and they are not Goldman Sachs either.

I’m not saying Twitter is going to fail. It will evolve. It may become a very profitable business. However, I believe that it won’t be the democratic, globally accessible, free-speech platform it is today for much longer. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Discuss on Hacker News.

5 Replies to “The Socialist Republic of Twitter”

  1. Granted Socialism is a board topic, however, most people who have experienced it or perhaps just studied it have a working idea of what could fit within the bounds of the concept. No offense, but from your post, it doesn’t sound like you have done either. I see you’re from the States. Unfortunately, most people from the States only have a knee-jerk reaction to the word, but little in the area of a political education. Many couldn’t give a good definition of Capitalism, not that this phenomenon is restricted to the United States. I would encourage you to dive into the subject a bit more before tossing around the term. A starting place could be Wikipedia:

  2. Ernesto, the knee-jerk reaction is yours. You “see” I’m from the states. However, I was born and raised in Argentina. I lived in Spain before moving to the US. I’ve been around the world. I know socialism well, and I read the Wikipedia article before my post because I anticipated responses like yours. I know exactly what I’m talking about.

    Unfortunately you don’t understand the point I’m making, and you’re getting hung up on my use of the word “socialism” which has multiple meanings and connotations. Let me explain it in simpler terms:

    Twitter functions in a way *similar* (in some aspects) to the way public services would work in a theoretical socialist country. That is, everybody gets it for free and according to their needs. This is a byproduct of the way the internet evolved. Instead of the government paying for Twitter, it’s advertisers. The effect however is the same. Instead of getting government propaganda, you see ads. Twitter is not a country, its users are not citizens and it’s not a physical place. The supposed egalitarianism of Twitter (everyone can use it for free) could go away in a second.

    Forget that I said socialism, and if you comment on my blog please don’t make assumptions about who I am.

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