Technophile

Is free social media for targeted ads the only available model?

Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan | Updated on June 20, 2018

Are you buying this? The internet thrives on advertising   -  iSTOCK

While highly lucrative, it isn’t the sole option, according to an Indian social media platform

Let’s begin with a simple (almost rhetorical) question. Are you on Facebook? Because if you are, you, my friend, are being targeted by people who want your money. In return for something, of course. Well, it can be summed up in one word: Advertising.

Being on Facebook makes it a lot easier to get targeted with advertisements, thanks to your data. Also, it’s been in the news for a while now, owing to the Cambridge Analytica data-mining scandal. So much so, that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg testified before governments over the issue. If you want to get an idea of just how much of your information is being used to target you with ads, go to settings and you should see a box that says “To download your information, go to your Facebook information.” Click on that link and then select “View your information by category”. Here, you’ll find a record of your Facebook footprint. Scroll down and you’ll see a box that says “Ads”. Select that and you’ll know which advertisers are contacting you, the kind of information they have on you, etc.

They know what you want

Not that this isn’t the case with other social media or technology products that we use. For example, I’ve noticed that more often than not, when I view snaps of food that my friends post on a picture-sharing platform, the ‘stories’ are punctuated with ads for a food delivery app. Smart, yes? Let your friends entice your taste buds, and all that remains to be done is to direct you to use a food service.

Advertising is what the internet (even TV, for that matter), thrives on. By now, it’s layman-speak that all free content is compensated (and in most cases, exists) by ads paying for it. Some internet giants just made it a lot easier for advertisers to sell to the right people.

Which is why the internet lost it when US Senator Orrin Hatch, in Zuckerberg’s US Senate hearing, asked Zuckerberg, “how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied, barely suppressing a smile. In another instance in the hearing, Senator Bill Nelson used an example of targeted advertising, saying, “Yesterday when we talked, I gave the relatively harmless example that I’m communicating with my friends on Facebook and indicate that I love a certain kind of chocolate. And all of a sudden I start receiving advertisements for chocolate.” Nelson further added that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also talked about how users who don’t want their information being used for targeted ads may have to pay for that protection. However, this is something that has already been tried. YouTube Red offers ad-free music videos for a subscription amount in certain countries, for example.

The trade-off?

So is that it, then? The trade-off in using a free service is your information? Not quite, by the looks of it. VoxWeb is a picture-sharing social media platform, founded by Yash Mishra, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur. The platform, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, announced that it will not track user data by default and users can opt out of their data being used. The company even hinted at having some sort of a reward or compensation for users who part with their data. Surprised? Well, we all should be. But even paying users for data gathering has been around for a while. Datacoup, for example, is an American company that pays people for their data, such as Facebook and Instagram likes, spending history, etc.

According to Yash Mishra of VoxWeb, the users’ need is evolving. They now want free social media services without giving away their data. “We as a company can respond to that need,” Mishra told BusinessLine, adding that the trust deficit needs to be removed for users to keep coming back to a platform.

But what bearing will removal of user tracking have on VoxWeb’s business model? Don’t targeted ads feature in it? “Targeted ads are not the only way to make a platform profitable,” Mishra said. “It is a way to maximise profits.”

Broadcast ads

He also cited examples such as broadcast ads that don’t need user data as a viable business model. “Even with broadcast ads, you are profitable,” he said. High-margin social commerce with features like in-app purchases, akin to what Chinese messaging app WeChat does, is another option, according to him. When pressed on what VoxWeb’s business model was, Mishra refused to elaborate, but said something was on the cards. “There is an original approach from our end, which I cannot disclose now,” he said.

While we can sure hope for all social media platforms to voluntarily stop tracking and using our data, here’s what you can do in the meantime: On Facebook, go to settings and then visit the ‘Apps and Websites’ section. Here, you should be able to turn off third-party apps and websites from using your Facebook credentials. This could include apps you use on a regular basis like Tinder or Buzzfeed, so suit yourself, essentially. For many, the simple truth is that we are all in too deep anyway and we might as well continue using these platforms. And as I write this, my Facebook and Twitter are indeed open on other tabs. But at least now, I’m aware of what I’m paying for these services with — my online and sometimes offline footprint, and that makes me value it some more, for whatever it’s worth.

Published on June 20, 2018

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