I just read a fascinating post by Ethan Zuckerman about the sustainability of social networks. He looks at a number of Internet ventures, at fee-based models, at advertisement-based models. He observes that
… Niche content can support itself via advertising, and search engines will continue to divert us to advertisers as we search for useful content… but social networks aren’t content, they’re communication tools…
…When a major value of a service is its ubiquity, it needs to be free…
and concludes saying that
…services like Facebook and Twitter are emerging as critical pieces of social infrastructure. It may be worth thinking of them as public goods. We know a lot of different ways to provision public goods – states maintain them using taxation, private entities build them and charge access fees, communities build them and rely on user support, NGOs provide services and use a hybrid of user fees, donations and foundation support.
I have to confess that I had never thought about them this way, but it is quite clear that as these tools gradually become part of the fabric of society, they will play an invaluable role for businesses, government and the public at large. What would some of us do if Twitter shut down? How many of our contacts would stop using Facebook if it decided to charge for services, and what would that loss mean to us?
I am not saying that these tools should be for free. There are different ways in which we do pay for infrastructure such as the electrical grid or motorways or gas pipes or phone lines or – indeed – the Internet.
What Ethan says is something far more important: by considering them as public goods we ensure that they will be sustainable for as long as democratically elected officials decide. So it would be us, the people, owning their future. Whether they would be subsidized through taxes, small fees, grants, donations, and so forth is almost an implementation detail. it is the principle that matters.
But, as we have seen that some of these networks have the potential to complement, disrupt and replace government in some of its functions (see previous post), it is somewhat ironic that their long term survival depends on government.
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