Elon Musk will start selling subscriptions for full access to Twitter. As the Journal noted Wednesday, his goal is to make his newly acquired property “less reliant on digital ads.” It’s far from “ad-free,” which is what Twitter users conditioned to pay nothing could reasonably expect for $8 a month.
Mr. Musk is flirting with a complete betrayal of the social contract on social media. The most valuable commodity in the online economy is, and always has been, you. Your eyes, your time, your interest, your profile, your posts – social media gives advertisers access to it all. Anyone selling razors or newsletter subscriptions can pay to reach you. In the first six months of 2022, Twitter had $2.2 billion in ad sales.
Selling access to users has been social media’s business model since it has had a business model. When Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004, membership was limited to Harvard students and then to enrolled students at other colleges. In September 2006, Facebook began offering free membership to anyone over the age of 13.
Facebook was an ad-free paradise for about a year. In that brief, shiny moment, you can share photos of your kids and reconnect with old school friends without someone trying to sell you a gym membership. But in November 2007, Mr. Zuckerberg figured out how he wanted to make money and introduced Facebook ads that allowed “companies to connect with users and target advertising to exactly the audience they want.”
The smart people got rid of Facebook then and there. The rest of us rushed to sign up for Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat,
and everything else. We couldn’t wait to give away access to our innermost thoughts. Along with our name, age, eye color and relationship status, they could have a record of our habits, hobbies, curiosities and interests.
All we asked for in return was a steady stream of dopamine hits. Likes, views, shares, retweets or snap streaks – it didn’t matter as long as they kept coming.
On some level we all knew this was a deal with the devil. Somewhere down the line, our inner voices insisted that we would end up regretting giving away so much of our private selves to Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue for nothing much in return. Most of us knew we were being cheated, but we couldn’t help it. We were in too deep. The approval of strangers on the Internet felt so good that we took the deal. Again and again we took the deal.
The only saving grace was the expense. Zero seemed reasonable, a price most of us were willing to pay for the strange joys of sleeplessly scrolling and subtweeting our enemies, real or imagined. We talked ourselves into believing that we could walk away from the big deal whenever we wanted, that we could cancel our accounts and slide back into a normal, well-adjusted life without social media.
Journalists like me talked ourselves into thinking we had to be on Twitter to work. But it never made sense either. You must be paid for work. You do not pay your employer for the pleasure of having a job.
And it makes no sense to pay for the privilege of being Twitter’s product. This is an opportunity to be one of the smart ones. Make yourself less dependent on social media. Stop completely if possible. You won’t have any trouble finding razors and newsletters. And now think of what you can do with all the money you save.
Mr. Hennessey is the magazine’s deputy editorial editor.
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