As Mark Zuckerberg testifies on the Hill today and tomorrow, Facebook’s advertising model and disclosures to users are on the hotseat along with the embattled Facebook CEO. It reminds me of how in 2005, Arianna Huffington pressed me on the virtues of blogging on her new site for free. “It will do wonders for your brand!” she said, after I’d interviewed her about launching The Huffington Post. As a pregnant staff writer at a weekly newsmagazine with two young kids at home, I was less focused on branding than balancing everything else on my plate.
When I’d later see my articles aggregated and excerpted on her site, I’d feel torn. In return for “traffic,” my work was generating ad revenue for people who bore none of the expense to produce it. Still, the model did wonders for the brand of Arianna, who sold the site to AOL six years later for $315 million. Some unpaid bloggers sued for a cut of the proceeds but lost. In fact, all that free content was becoming a liability as fake news, advertorial and boring bits of self-promotion kept polluting the platform, to the annoyance of advertisers and readers, most of whom weren’t there to build a brand.
Earlier this year, HuffPo abandoned its push to expand from 100,000 unpaid contributors to 1 million, and instead shut down the network to focus on content it could control. A business model that made its maker rich had unleashed a tsunami of false information that, as editor-in-chief (and New York Times veteran) Lydia Polgreen put it, now threatened to undermine democracy.
Zuckerberg knows all about that. He was contrite before Congress today about how he’s handled his own tsunami of fake news, vile videos and threats to democracy on his platform. It’s a daunting task. Even with the magic of bots and advances in artificial intelligence, that means monitoring the actions of 2.2 billion people with roughly one employee for every 88,000 users. When I told my son, now 17, about a Facebook “reverse-lookup” feature that could be used to harvest names, profiles and phone numbers, his reaction was “Duh!” If we own every photo, message and status update we post to Facebook, we ultimately need to protect that. We know that our data is both vulnerable and valuable; what we don’t know is how to profit from it.
That might sound like a rhetorical question. It’s not. Americans care deeply about privacy when their data is being handled by public agencies with acronyms like NSA or, say, IRS. They’re often happy to hand it to private companies if they get something back. [Quick poll: Who would share their dating history for a seat upgrade? Trans-Pacific. First Class.] Zuckerberg, pointedly, said he would refuse to disclose his hotel or messages sent this week when asked about his own feelings on privacy.
The problem with Facebook—and most of its rivals—is that it’s not yet a fair trade. The value it gets from users exceeds the value we currently get from them. The company could do much more to help users leverage the data that they provide along with the broader analytics on its platform to monetize the value of what they produce and what they do.
If you ask most consumers what they’re anxious about these days, I bet most would bypass data to focus on their destinies in the digital age. No job number can mask the fact that wage growth is meh, millions are underemployed and robots are coming. Will Uber still tell me to be my own boss when it switches to a fleet of self-driving cars? Do advertisers have the right to scour my photos and track me as I then travel through the web? Putting up with ads is one thing when you’re consuming content. What about when you’re producing it?
Many feel exploited by a winner-take-all model in which relatively few entrepreneurs—mostly men, mostly white, mostly living in Silicon Valley—become fabulously rich off platforms that monetize the insights and labor of their users. As the prime beneficiaries and drivers of technology innovation, what is Facebook doing to help its 2.2 billion users thrive in the digital age? If they own their data, why doesn’t the tech giant do more to help users create opportunities and profit from that information? I’m not just talking about digital pennies from a few ads or a new platform to sell stuff. Let’s stop focusing on soul-numbing ideas like universal income and instead look for new models of thought leadership, skills development and entrepreneurship.
It’s time for the disruptors to disrupt themselves and find new ways to tap their resources to reward and empower users. We did it with music. While the model isn’t perfect, platforms like Apple and Spotify do compensate artists for their work. Media companies, while struggling, have also found new ways to monetize the expensive work of reporting the news. [How we regain the trust of a public that’s been bombarded with crap is another matter.] Amazon, LinkedIn, and YouTube have interesting projects underway. We need a lot more innovation, and Facebook should be leading the way. When you have 2.2 billion users, you’re not a communication service but an ecosystem. Right now, that ecosystem feels unbalanced. By all means, Zuckerberg should keep trying to restrict the abuse. If he can’t learn to better reward value, we’ll go build our brands somewhere else.
Diane Brady, a former journalist with The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek, is a writer in New York.