Commentary

How Much Would a Protester in Iran Pay to Have a Twitter or Facebook Account?

As is so often the case, I'm sitting here with two conflicting column ideas in my head, only to wonder if they are really in conflict at all. They are:

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,

or,

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."

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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.

Boo-bleepin'-hoo.

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;)

19 comments about "How Much Would a Protester in Iran Pay to Have a Twitter or Facebook Account? ".
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  1. Shelly Kramer from V3 Integrated Marketing, June 17, 2009 at 1:42 p.m.

    You go girl! Terrific article and totally spot-on. Nothing wrong with asking users to pay for content and even a nominal sum from 17M users would be a whole lotta revenue. And make a whole lotta sense. But, the more you give anything away, the less perceived value there is in a customer's eyes.

    Great stuff, Catharine.

  2. Mike Loomis from Eastco Worldwide, June 17, 2009 at 1:50 p.m.

    Totally Agree! And Facebook also missed a great opportunity to introduce their new payment system. I would have paid $5 for my vanity URL, used their system, and felt more "invested" in Facebook

  3. Cassandra Branson from FK Interactive, June 17, 2009 at 1:54 p.m.

    Google's mantra of FOF- focus on free- is a great thing, and has been worth following in many aspects of social media. However, eventually, if these giants are to survive, and continue to create spaces for us to congregate, communicate, and speak our minds, monetization must eventually occur.

    We will always complain about paying for something we are used to getting for free. But if real social value is established, the best will rise to the top-both in popularity and financial opportunity. The Radiohead concept is a great way to do this, and many new social media sites would do well to imitate it in their business models.

    Truly insightful article, Catherine, as always.

  4. Steve Noble from VideoAdMan.com, June 17, 2009 at 2 p.m.

    Wow. This article is excellent. I really have to think before jumping into an immediate response. Part of me agrees, the most part, but part not. Great job!

  5. Trish Bruno from Matrix.B Group, June 17, 2009 at 2:02 p.m.

    Perhaps there's a long-term plan we're not privy to at this moment (think Google during the late 90's). Didn't we all make the search switch back then when it seemed "cleaner" or more subversive (for those of us web geeks that thought Google was "cooler") than the offerings of the day? My, my, how they've grown up (and learned to make a decent living off of our...umm...habits)!

  6. Scott Doniger from Wirestone, June 17, 2009 at 2:19 p.m.

    thank you, catharine, for slapping lipstick on the pig-like elephant that's been in our collective digital living room since Internet v.001 -- that no online experience should be free because everything has value. how we define "free", that's the issue -- most narrowminded capitalists (myself included in most cases) define it in monetary terms...but the value we derive from interconnectedness should not be limited to dollars. whether it's the exchange of personal data, purchase intent, or dollars, nothing on the internet should be considered free. as such, facebook's decision can't be judged simply through the lens of lost revenue today...and the value twitter brings to muzzled Iranians is priceless.

  7. Carmina Perez, June 17, 2009 at 2:28 p.m.

    I definitely would pay $10 a year for a Facebook or Twitter account, but who benefits if these companies start making money? The VCs, the founders. It would be great if they used the money for some real live customer service, in my opinion....

  8. Chris Simpson from AU/SOC, June 17, 2009 at 3:39 p.m.

    No offense, but Ms Taylor has overlooked some very basic aspects of reality in her rush to promote 'monetized' social media. One of them is this: Twitter does _not_ support Farsi script (Iranian language). The mass media claims in the West about rebellion in Iran driven by Twitter are a mix of wishful thinking and comfortable cliches about technology.

    It is true that some exiles and even a handful of English-speakers in Tehran use Twitter to spread news. But the overwhelming majority of Iranians are shut out of that process. There are many reasons for the demonstrations in Iran, but Twitter is not one of them.

    Please also consider, at least for a moment, how susceptible Twitter is to spoofing and disinformation.

    Some will reply: OK, so what, someone will develop a Farsi script version for Twitter.

    Consider: First, that is not so easy. That is why Twitter and various competitors do not offer it _now_. The same problem comes up with Arabic and many Asian languages. Second, even supposing a genuinely functional Farsi version became available sometime soon, Twitter appears likely to be relatively easy for state censors to block. If it is still 'up' in Tehran today, that is due to an oversight by the powers that be, not due to the qualities of the technology.

    Bottom line here is that attempting to twist the current events in Iran into a reason for monetizing Twitter in the US is a self-deception.

    No doubt I'll be accused a being a stooge for this or that political faction in Iran. That is not true. I simply prefer to live in the world that actually exists, rather than in an imaginary situation.

  9. Shira Adatto from Zibaba, June 17, 2009 at 3:56 p.m.

    Another advantage of pay for use is that it might weed out some of the wack jobs.

  10. Andres Santamaria from Signal 29 LLC, June 17, 2009 at 4:56 p.m.

    What? Pay for a vanity domain? Although a price point of $5 would certainly tempt Facebook users to buy one, that isn't the point. This is the online equivalent of nickel and diming users.

    I have to side with Facebook's decision not to charge. Does Facebook not already have enough information from its users - names, email addresses, photos, friends, messages, and online activity?

    All this talk of the "value" of social networks and you have completely forgotten that Facebook is getting mountains of data from its users completely for free! Surely, my personal information and those of my friends is worth more than a measly five bucks. Surely, my friends and I provide Facebook, mind you, more "value" than what they would have earned by charging for vanity domains.

    And comparing social networks to online newspapers - total fallacy. Facebook does not create content. It is merely a container for other people's content. Facebook is an enabler.

    So, I ask you, would you pay a nominal fee for Facebook, Twitter, and every other free online service?

    If it starts free, it should remain free.

  11. Jason Haddad from 22Squared, June 17, 2009 at 5:42 p.m.

    In response to Mr. Simpson above:

    There is a Farsi version of Twitter (or at least a blended English/Farsi version), Faris uses the same script/alphabet as Arabic and there are people actively Tweeting in Farsi now:

    http://twitter.com/mousavi1388

    In addition, there are more than "a handful of English speakers in Tehran" Iran has a highly educated population despite popular belief.

    While I don't believe that Twitter (or other Social Media tools) are the sole driving force behind these events, there are millions of highly educated and very wealthy displaced Iranian people throughout the world that have unrestricted access and who are actively communicating with family in Iran. The Iranian government may be able to block direct access to Twitter for people living in Tehran, but as the Shah discovered, it's not as easy as pushing the "off button", technology is pervasive and if people want to get a message out they will find a way.

  12. Betsy Kent from Be Visible Associates, June 17, 2009 at 7:12 p.m.

    One of the most important lessons I learned during my many years in sales is that once you offer people something for free, they will NEVER pay for it later. No matter how cool or useful that something is, the fact is that the perception of value is not there when it's free, and also there is no real long term commitment by users...when the next new thing comes around, they bail!

  13. Thomas Trumble from Jack Morton Worldwide, June 17, 2009 at 7:48 p.m.

    Your post reminded me of something a Soviet artist told me back in the 80s. He said that in the USSR his work was important enough to be feared and get him arrested, but in the US he could barely get attention. In Tehran they understand the power that Twitter and Facebook provide to influence society, but in the US our free society makes us fortunate enough to undervalue social media.

  14. Thomas Kennon from Free Radicals, June 17, 2009 at 8:48 p.m.

    Brava Catharine, refreshingly incisive - dangerously business-like! - take on the state of digital social. The getting our news and entertainment for free syndrome is a vestigial infection from first wave of TV (pre cable, PPV). And it's baked in.

    The value equation for social media is a lot trickier than figuring out how to monetize mail as Yahoo has done or search as Google has done. Remember, at its heart, these new media are essentially empty platforms (MsSpace, Facebook, YouTube) or channels (Twitter, FriendFeed, Blip.fm). It is the great WE that fill it with stuff, so how to value membership or access isn't as simple as it used to be when publishers or content aggregators were doing the heavy lifting.

    The Radiohead model is earnest, but not scalable as who would invest in such a wobbly bottomline.

    The subscription model isn't bad but it would have to be nominal (ask NYTimes.com about how premium content worked out, and they were providing it) and perhaps too low to sustain.

    Somehow, I do believe brands and businesses will subsidize these platforms and channels, but it better happen quickly cuz the VC clock is certainly ticking on some of our favorites places to hangout online.

  15. Swag Valance from Trash, Inc., June 17, 2009 at 9:09 p.m.

    I'm not sure I buy this argument. This article makes it sound like a Twitter account has mystical powers not possible with a blog, an e-mail account, a Web site, etc.

    Not only that, it sort of takes the 1996 position that the Web is egalitarian and everyone's voice is heard as much as any other's. If that were the case, many of the posters here would be in other professions. "I tweet, therefore I have a global voice"? Not by a longshot. Just ask Ashton Kutcher.

  16. Michael Senno from New York University, June 17, 2009 at 9:38 p.m.

    Don't point the finger at the people...yet. I think not that its value is proven, many would pay. The publishers deserve the blame for not charging. Looking ahead a few years, social media and media in general will take big step backwards unless someone starts charging. Advertising is simply not sustainable.

  17. Allan Hoving from AH Consulting, June 18, 2009 at 3:34 p.m.

    the ultimate engagement metric is a sale

  18. J Levinger from Nextcode, June 18, 2009 at 6:35 p.m.

    To charge for Twitter or Facebook is to kill the golden goose. The value of these services comes from reach. Sure the service would be well worth $10 per year to some folks, but it wont be after one charges for it and it is no longer ubiquitous. Imagine what Google would be worth today if they had tried charging search 10 years ago. We would all be using something else.

  19. Bea Rush, June 19, 2009 at 11:38 p.m.

    This article made me think of a word and a Janis Joplin song (that I love to this day): Freedom. "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose...nothin' don't mean nothin' hon' if it ain't free..." There are Iranians who have nothin' left to lose but their Twitter and Facebook.
    Meanwhile, in the wonderful USA we have it all and, in some cases, we are asked to pay for it (my daily newspaper, as an example). Catherine Taylor, you are my new best friend in Social Media.

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