This week I was introduced to – and in turn introduced some others to – Branch. In case you're wondering what it is (I did, my first comment was "what is it?"), Branch is a new conversational tool, i.e., somewhere to hold conversations easily, in public or in private, with a branching model borrowed in spirit from Git (the revision and source control system). It's not Just Another Social Network, like one of my friends feared ("who has time to check another social network?"), but another comment indicated that it does have some things in common with social networks: "how is it going to be paid for?". This question lead to a discussion about how, and if, we should pay for social networks, that took place largely on Branch. Here, I've summarised what I said and what I learned. I realise this may go against the point of Branch in some people's minds, but for me this is exactly what it's great for: a place to hold a discussion where ideas can bubble and formulate.
I began the conversation with three ways I'd be happy to pay for a social network: 1) Pay for a good native client(s) (and leave the web version free) 2) Pay to have no ads (and allow others to use for free with ad/sponsored stuff) 3) Pay to have read/write access (allow others to read-only for free).
The main issue with the first of these was sustainability: once everyone's bought the client, how do you continue to fund the service? I'd be interested to know how Instapaper's model of an optional subscription charge works for this: I suspect that for a niche app with a cult following this could work, but it probably isn't a model most companies could follow.
Two main points arose from number two: firstly, if you're opting out of ads, are you also opting out of being mined for advertising data? Secondly, current print and broadcast media charge and show you ads anyway, and have been doing so for years.
The opting-out of being mined point is interesting: I know that some people would want to be able to opt out of this for privacy reasons (although I don't really see how you privacy is being challenged: perhaps for 'moral' reasons is a better way of putting it). Personally, though, I don't think I care if my data is mined, so long as I don't see the results, i.e. ads or promoted stuff in my news or social feeds. If a company wants to work out that in general people who talk about smartphones also talk about coffee, and so start to make cool phone-coffee holders, or billboards showing phones with coffee, I'm not sure I really care. As long as I can pay a small fee and not see an advert for CoffeePhone in my inbox, I'd be happy.
The second point about paid-for services also having ads: I'm not so sure. It's true that newspapers charge and also carry advertisements, it's also common knowledge that the cover price of a newspaper doesn't cover it's cost: the advertising does, so I'm not sure they are really doing both. HBO have proven there is a market for a premium price point with no sponsorship. One issue here though is that there is nothing stopping a service from starting with some pricing tier for 'no ads', and this then morphing into 'some ads', and a new tier of pricing being introduced for 'no ads' again.
The final option – pay for read/write access but allow for reading – is I believe what App.net do right now. When I first suggested this idea, I didn't know that they allowed this, and this unfortunately negates my idea. I haven't read a single thing on App.net since realising I could, and so it's hardly sucking me in to their world. And as someone else noted, this was the model Friends Reunited used. ("Nuff said.")
We shouldn't completely discount the model though, App.net got 10,000 backers before launching (and has already grown to around 17,500 now that they have launched) so some people clearly are happy to pay.
Which brings us back to the original proposition: should we be paying for social networks at all? I think that now we have them, we're going to be using these sorts of services – social networks and conversational tools – in one form or another, for the foreseeable future. But wouldn't it be a shame if we are constantly moving from one to the next like we are now, trying to stay ahead of the latest companies evil profit-making ways? Wouldn't we be better instead to agree on the protocols, then pay our personally chosen provider for a decent service? Like we do for landlines, and broadband and electricity. The U.S. has been plagued for years by non-standard services, and here in the U.K. for the most part we've been spared that (although that has been because of nationalisation). I don't want to live in that frontier world where the train gauges don't match up and I can't connect across to another phone because it's on another network. And I don't want to have to keep jumping from service to service riding the free-wave: I've got better things to do with my time (no, really!). We're getting to the age where social networks are growing up, and maybe our attitude to paying for things needs to grow up with them.
Thanks to Steve Pettifer (@srp), James Lewis (@jameslewis), Tim Marshall (@pixelcellar), Simon Dell (@simon_dell) and Claire Miller (@RedDread) for participating in the discussions this post was based on.