Digital democracy

The age of experimentation is over. For the last decade, brands have been feeling their way into the age of social media, building their audiences and learning how to make the most out of what can still feel like a new marketing channel. Last year was the tipping point in that journey. Facebook, with 1.3 billion users, is reducing the organic reach that brands can achieve on the social network in a bid to get them to pay to be seen by their audiences instead.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Facebook is now a publicly traded company (as are fellow networks LinkedIn and Twitter) and as such it must focus on its financial performance in order to appease Wall Street and satisfy dollar-hungry shareholders. As soon as it became clear that serving personalised ads to consumers by harnessing the data they provide to social networks would be big business, the market was always going to evolve this way.

But the move to control the success of content based on how much brands pay for it to be seen takes an advertising channel in which the best content has always risen to the top back to a more traditional model like TV – the companies with the most money win. People appreciate “smart content” – I know I do – but if businesses realise they can reach users by stumping up the cash, regardless of the quality of their material, then there will be less innovation and creativity, which is a shame for someone like me.

Data economy

Selling personal data to advertisers, either directly or indirectly, is the bread and butter of social networks. Many people aren’t concerned about this: the ever-growing pool of social network users globally (estimated at more than 2 billion people) is testament to this. But there’s an increasing dissatisfaction and distrust towards the trading of our information, which has seen the launch of networks like Ello, a service that has pledged to remain an ad-free zone. The network is tight-lipped about user numbers, but it garnered a lot of press in the autumn as more consumers than the site could handle signed up to the website.

A few months on and the hype has died down somewhat, with research suggesting that three quarters of users have posted three times or less. But the network is planning a redesign and will release mobile apps in the coming months as it bids to reignite the initial excitement. Provided that Ello can succeed in a crowded space, the benefit is that it will become an authentic social space, rather than a tool that will eventually be governed by cold, hard cash.

What’s truly yours?

As concerns about privacy become more and more vocal, there are also growing questions about the ownership of the content and information we post on social media. Networks essentially own everything we post (have you ever tried to download your entire image library from Facebook? It’s not an easy experience). They also profit directly from that content. At its most simplistic, we’re signing up to these services and giving them our content in return for being served advertisements. It hardly sounds like a democracy.

There are, of course, many great things about social media. It has certainly impacted many areas of society, from helping to develop cultures to driving political change. You only have to look at the impact Twitter has made from its role in the Arab Spring to the response of users to the tragedies in France this month. But on the whole, social networks aren’t providing the digital democracy they purport to. There may be fewer ads on networks like Twitter and LinkedIn than on Facebook, which leads the market, but they remain floated companies that are always looking for ways to take your dollars. There remains a gap for a truly democratic network.

Almost a decade ago, I was part of a group that came close to creating just that – and the secret was that it was going to be completely owned by its users.

What would become our concept for a self-governing network began as a weekly get-together in our London studio, during which a number of significant and influential figures across industries including law, professional services and the media would turn up to talk about, well, life. The attendees knew each other in a professional capacity – past and present colleagues and clients, people introduced at networking events – it wasn’t unlike LinkedIn today. After a number of weeks, we decided that this organically grown gathering should be turned into something tangible.

This was a time when Facebook was in its infancy. It had only just reached the UK in fact. But even at that stage, the lawyers in our group raised concerns about the fact that the network owned the content posted on there. This shaped our thought process – we wanted to create a social network that was owned by its members (who would all pay a nominal fee to join). We didn’t want to create a non-profit organisation, but a network that enabled its members to benefit from any value created on it – and retain ownership of the content they shared on it.

Ahead of its time

Of course, mutual ownership isn’t new. But while most such businesses are based around a company that operates in a specific area (whether it’s a football club or a department store), our network wouldn’t be restricted to offering one core service – the crowd (our members) decided what it would become.

But therein lay the challenge. All mutually owned organisations must be regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) in the UK, so we had to create a legal framework endorsed by the body that would support our digital democracy.

A key feature of this network was the ability of the crowd to decide how any revenue would be spent. We envisaged businesses pitching to the network, which would collectively decide whether to help fund it. (The image above shows how the voting might have worked.) The rise of crowdfunding, led by sites like Kickstarter, has made the power of the crowd a completely normal concept now, but eight years ago it was innovative – and fraught with perceived risks. Ultimately, it was those risks and the complexity of the legal frameworks that put paid to the network’s launch – it was just too early at that stage in social media’s evolution.

Would the network have worked in today’s climate? Absolutely. And it would have created a significantly different social media landscape. Rather than surrendering our power as a collective, social media users could harness it to create a virtuous circle, where the best content rises to the top, the best ideas are heard and the very best can be realised through funding. And every member of the network shares in its sucess.

It remains to be seen just how much social media marketing will evolve in the coming year as a result of brands’ clipped reach. I fully expect that media spend will rocket (particularly with Facebook) as larger brands dig deep for paid ad tools, but could we see greater innovation and ingenuity from brands that are determined to reach their audiences in a more natural way? I would like to think so. Advertising may be social media’s lifeblood, but innovation is the driving force of communications. The two can – and must – co-exist. Rock ‘n’ roll.


  • Social media
  • Advertising
  • Content marketing
  • Facebook
  • Democracy