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.
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.