The word “free” in the English language has two distinctly different meanings that seem curiously opposed when it comes to social media. A social media platform that is “free as in beer” can not at the same time be “free as in speech”, and the reverse is equally true. The underlying reason for this is quite simple: it costs money to put things online. Servers are not free, and keeping them running requires energy and effort. In short, hosting costs money.
The Facebook problem
Recently, Facebook has been the focus of a lot media attention. Their advertising practices have come under scrutiny, and in many cases rightfully so. But while Facebook is very aggressive in their monetization of user content, the fundamental problem is their business model. Facebook offers a free service. To keep their many thousands of servers running, they need to profile their users, and serve targeted ads. The advertisers are the clients, the users are the product.
I see people abandoning Facebook, Google, etc in favor of lesser-known new platforms that promise they’ll not be quite as bad. But those platforms also need to cover costs, and few have a clear business model. And the fundamental problem remains. They’re hosting your updates, cat pictures and videos for free, so your still the product.
The other kind of free
This is why there’s been a lot of interest lately in efforts to decentralize the internet, and try to move away from large “walled garden” platforms.
It’s going to be a tough sell, but in order for the social media landscape to really change for the better, end users need to host their own stuff. And this will (and should) cost them money. This is the only way to make sure that the user owns the content, and is promoted from product to client.
This is the basic idea behind my Blogmesh project (which is still in its early stages). Getting people to set up their own ‘home’ in a network that is decentralised and then connecting the nodes in that network into a social network that’s free as in speech.