Whether Twitter's true big moment came yesterday, when it gave in to the request of the State Department not to shut the site down for maintenance because of the role it is playing in the Iran election protests,
Whether Facebook should have charged for vanity URLs, instead of once again giving away the store when it had something worth selling.
How are these two stories related? One word: value.
Social networks have value, not only to people, but to world security. The U.S. government, without any embassy in Iran, and with foreign reporters banned from covering Iranian protests, is now getting intel via Twitter and Facebook, and, one could argue getting a greater volume (though admittedly sometimes wildly inaccurate), of information than it would have gotten even if those more traditional channels were still open to it. Said one state department spokesperson: "We've highlighted to [Twitter] the importance of these social media. This is about the Iranian people. This is about giving their voices a chance to be heard. One of the ways that their voices are heard are through new media."
Now, I ask you, if you went to any one of these protesters and asked: would you pay, say, $5 a year to have a Twitter account, or a Facebook vanity URL, would you do it? Fears of being tracked down aside, the answer would be "Yes, definitely. This is how I have a voice."
Now contrast that with what Nicholas Carlson reported over at Silicon Alley Insider earlier this week: that one reason Facebook decided not to charge for vanity URLs, or hold auctions for them when it started giving them out on Saturday, is because users complained they didn't have to pay for their vanity URLs elsewhere in the social media-verse.
It makes me wonder if we Westerners don't truly value what social media has given us. In Iran, people use Twitter to get the word out about the chaos that's going on inside their country. Here, we tweet about the relatively mundane, whether it's sending quotes into the ether from the latest navel-gazing Twitter conference or complaining about the service at Starbucks.
So, though many of us go on and on about how we love our social networks, do we really value them? And do the social networks themselves make it clear to us what value they're providing? The answer, on both accounts, is no. If we truly valued our social networks, we'd be willing to pony up some small change to be members; and if social networks had any cojones concerning their consumers, they'd at least do a Radiohead and ask users to pay what they thought their social network experience was worth.
In fact, though I seldom see them compared, right now, social networks are following the same monetization scheme that the online newspaper business is: don't ask users, who derive value from you every day of their lives, to pay a blessed thing, and hope that other revenue streams will pick up the slack. If the experience of the newspaper business is any guide, not even the best ad model in the world will be able to do so.
I know. The gambit in both cases was this: build it, and they will come, and the revenue will follow. Hate to break the news to you, but it ain't working.
In fact, the more I stewed over these issues over the last day, the more I wondered if, at the rate we're going with this whole social media monetization thing, the best thing for social media would be to get a bailout. That's right -- have the State Department buy out Twitter and Facebook and turn them into the world's most global intelligence resource. Clearly, the U.S. government, and many people in Iran, value social media. I'm not sure the rest of us really do, unless we're willing to put our money where our mouse is.
See you at OMMA Social NY next Tuesday! I promise I won't be so harsh;)