Free is never free

Social media isn’t free. There is an actual, real and concrete cost to social media. Not the typical metaphorical costs often mentioned like time away from family, unnecessary screen time, privacy costs etc. I’m talking about real dollars and cents (or your equivalent currency).

Free is never free

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. ~ blue_beetle or Andrew Lewis

This is not a new quote or even a new idea. It originates back to a project created by two artists, Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, in 1973. But it took until 2010 for Andrew Lewis to put the idea into a such meme worthy form. This idea has had a new relevance to me. Especially since I’ve been working on finding a new home for our G+ community.

While G+ was often hard to understand for newbies, it is a unique and irreplaceable platform. The folks at G+ gave us amazing controls and tools to help our communities run smoothly. Photographers loved the platform because we could uploaded photos at a high resolution. There is also nearly unlimited storage capacity for photos on G+. Subjects and themes are easy to follow within the a community because G+ used folders to organize topics. All these features are offered for no cost to the user nor was their advertising present. In addition to all these seemingly simple perks, your profile and content was searchable by the great Google search engines.

So when the folks at Alphabet pulled the plug on G+ we had to replace some pretty big shoes. Little did we know how good we had it. Even though G+ is the social platform that could have been, those who used it thrived under the benign neglect of its benevolent overlords. If we had our way, we would still be happily playing on the platform that everyone forgot about. Now that we’re thrust out into the cold harsh realities of the social media swamp, I’ve learned a thing or two about social media. For example: free is never free. 

Moving on

Even though MeWe was not the winner of our community survey of other platform options, we decided to migrate their anyway. This was an incredibly difficult decision to make. With the help of Tony and several other members of our moderator team we kicked the tires of our top choices and landed on MeWe.

So far 50+ people have requested to be a part of our new MeWe community. It’s definitely starting to feel like home. With built in chat, hashtags to organize photos and a clean user interface, it has a lot going for it. But it’s no G+. Images are compressed, storage over 8gb will cost you a monthly fee and photos are not discoverable by outside search engines. While not an ideal situation, it felt like the best of the alternatives.

While I was researching other social media platforms I discovered that the true costs of these platforms is expensive. It takes real money to create a platform, run it and store the information. I know what you’re thinking: Duh! But really, have you ever thought about what it costs per user to maintain and run a social sharing platform? And if you’re not going to pay for it with subscriptions, how do you pay for it?

I think as a hard core social media user I never gave much thought to what happens to my photos when I upload them to any platform. It’s not as if those photos disappear into thin air, although that’s how it feels. Those bits and bytes have to be stored somewhere and that storage has a cost. Up until recently that cost has been minimized or non existent to the end user. But it seems as if there is a move afoot to charge users for service beyond the basics. After looking at all the options out there, I can see why.

Kitten rescue.

Our Options

The Diaspora

I’m a big fan of the Federation. This is a group of interconnected servers, each hosting a set number of users. The Federations is run on open source software and anyone with expertise is encouraged to help write and update the code. The platform is “owned” and operated by these volunteers. In fact anyone can set up a server and host a specific community of like minded individuals.

I was very tempted to set up a Toy Photographers server and try to build a completely self contained social media site just for toy photographers. The interface operates like a cross between Twitter and Instagram and I found it to be bare bones, but pleasant. It would be amazing to liberate the toy community from commercial social media. In my opinion there is no benefit for the average toy photographer to amass followers, to become an influencer or to gain notoriety through Instagram or Facebook. For me, toy photography has always been about finding a community. So creating a small community on an independent server seems like a good idea. Someday…

But I’m not a coder so the technical aspects of this option exceed my skills. Also my funds are limited (I’d rather spend them on toys or travel) so the cost of hosting a dedicated VPN server at upwards of $1k a year is daunting at best. I also don’t have the faith that our community members will pay for the privilege of playing on a safe, ad free platform. But as other platforms move to a pay to play model, this may become a viable option in the future.

Flickr

Flickr? Really? While Flickr has been around since 2004, its changed hands several times. Most recently it was bought by SmugMug in April of 2018. Flickr was one of the earlier, successful photo sharing social media platforms. At one time, it was THE place to share photos to be discovered. Of course as new social media sites have sprung up over the years that has changed. Recently the company announced that there previously free unlimited storage would no longer be free. If you subscribe to the free model (think basic) you will be limited to 1,000 photos. With the Pro account, which is $50, you receive unlimited storage and hopefully a few more perks as this new tiered system is rolled out.

While there was a significant outcry on the Flickr platform, I would rather pay for the service than watch it wither and die. I’ve already been through that on G+ and I’m not interested in having it happen again on a platform that caters to the specific needs of photographers. I tend to agree with Don MacAskill, CEO of SmugMug, when he says:

“Given an unsustainable model or a sustainable model, which would you choose?”

I remember when in the early days of Twitter they briefly considered a subscription model. This was dismissed and the company pivoted towards promoted tweets and advertising. After watching that platform transform into a truly inhospitable free for all, I’m all for a subscription service to help support my favorite social media platforms survive.

Private Membership Forum

Anther idea proposed to replace G+ was creating a private membership forum on the blog. While this is a great idea, and one I plan on implementing with the Women’s Brick Initiative, it ran into many of the same problems that The Federation does. Will our members join yet another platform? What will the increased costs be to our hosting package? How can we accommodate high res files? If we’re hosting other peoples photos, who has ownership? Who is going to set up and maintain the community?

While this was a popular option with our current community members it has many of the same pitfalls as joining The Federation. I know I don’t have the time, energy or knowledge to fully explore and implement this idea.

Facebook

Why not Facebook you ask? Everyone is already on it, its easy to use AND they’re really pushing communities. Facebook seems like the obvious, and easiest choice. While I can appreciate easy, I’ve never done anything the easy way. Why should I start now?

Facebook is very clear about its business model. The users are both the product and the customer. If you want a business post to be seen by either your existing followers or new ones, you have to pay for it. Advertisers learned long ago that if you want your page to be seen, its going to cost you.

I fully support a platforms need to make money to cover costs. What I object to is the never ending articles about the platform which all seem to involving hacking, data breaches, trolls and politics. The company also seems to be willing to take anyones money, as long as it benefits their bottom line. Personally I like the companies I do business with to have a strong moral compass.

Honestly I don’t know if Facebook is all that evil or simply so big they’re an easy target. Either way, my instincts tell me to stay away.

I’m sure this isn’t a popular position to take. While everyone loves to bash Facebook, there are many opportunities on the platform! There are many wonderful toy photography groups that you can join. In fact I’m a member of more than a few of them. But with so much to offer, does Facebook really need another toy photography group? Since I never do anything the easy way, why not turn this move into an opportunity to break new ground?

MeWe

Tony and I had many conversations about the pros and cons about many of these platforms. We even looked at a few that I’ve not mentioned here. If you’re willing to look beyond Facebook, Instagram and Twitter there are a surprising number of social media platforms out there. We chose MeWe because there is a decent interface, it works on a Freemium model that makes it sustainable in the long run, and the owners are open to listening and adapting to new users.

Another plus is that the owners are privacy advocates. This means personal data remains private. In our current era, our information and habits are sorted and sold to the highest bidder on a regular basis. Knowing that this doesn’t happen on MeWe is surprisingly refreshing. MeWe isn’t perfect, but it has some definite advantages, and this is one of them.

New adventures!
In Conclusion

I’ve been on social media since the early days of Twitter. I remember joining in 2007 after they hit it big at SXSW. But in all those years Ive never really given a thought to where my information goes, who pays for the storage or how is my information sorted and sold. After spending the last month researching, and playing on different platforms, I’m much more aware of what I share and where I share it.

I don’t think I will ever be able to escape Facebook, or even Instagram for that matter. But I think that a pay to play model is a lot more honest. I would rather pay up front to use a service, rather than have my surfing habits packaged up and sold to an advertiser. I think paying for what you use is more honest than the game of obfuscation we play now.

Hopefully by paying for services like Flickr and MeWe, these platforms will be around for the long haul. And maybe even (dare I hope!), my information will be (relatively) safe. Alphabet was extremely generous to support G+ for all these years with no real benefit. But I don’t think I will count on that happening again.

Because you know what: Free is never really free.

Shelly

How do you feel about paying for social media? Have you been faced with this choice lately? If so how do you feel about this change? Are there any platforms you would gladly pay for just to make sure they stay fiscally healthy? 

4 Comments

  1. Tony Tulloch

    Unfortunately the only thing out there that is as good as Google+, is Google+, and that’s not for long. I would have liked to have seen our community stay until the sunset of the platform, but people naturally gravitate away.

    Given that there has been so much negative feeling about the closure it was necessary to find a new home sooner, rather than later. I feel this was the correct course of action for our community, as I have noticed engagement in all of my G+ communities has dropped considerably already.

    Like Shelly, I believe MeWe is the most appropriate new home for our community (and is also working well for other photographic communities migrating from G+). MeWe is not perfect, and occasionally it is frustrating in its execution of certain functions that we have taken for granted (such as resharing posts). But this David-esque social media platform taking on the data grabbing goliaths is a comfortable and safe feeling place for us to share our love of toy photography with like-minded people. The toyphotographers.com community on MeWe will never reach the nearly 4,000 members it did on Google+, but then that was only superficial anyway. There has always been a small, solid core of members that have made the community what it is today. There may be strength in numbers, but there is community in engagement.

    MeWe already feels like home.

  2. Mary Wardell

    Shelly & Tony and all the others involved in the move – I think you’ve done a marvelous job finding ways we can continue as a community. MeWe is not perfect but it will do the job. I’ve been online longer than many – when I first went online in 1986 it was all dial-up and we paid by the hour to share our time with others. Sadly, Playnet, the platform where I met my husband (NOT a dating site!) went bust in 1988 as other, bigger platforms came along. We’ve been lucky all these years with the different platforms that have come along – either inexpensive or free (at least where money was concerned) – there are many who don’t remember when we had to pay to play. I think a subscription model is potentially more stable and safe. No guaranties, of course. But I am glad that our community and some of the others I have been a part of on G+ are finding ways to hold the core group of members together. Thanks again, Shelly & Tony & everyone else!

  3. Shelly, thanks for this post which clarifies a lot for me. I will look into moving to MeWe right after writing this comment (and before starting wok on my fairy tale picture) – and I will shut down my G+ account: Like you, I am quite aware of data (un)security, and I want no loose ends with pictures and other data floating around the web if I can help it. Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into keeping this community afloat!

  4. Flickr could have gone about the making the changes in a better way and also should have offered a middle tier for those of us who care nothing for 4k and video hosting.

    I want a better app. Give me that first and then I’ll consider upgrading.

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