How Facebook, Apple and Twitter are ending online equality

Social network users used to be equal. But now three of the biggest tech companies are deliberately creating a new elitism.

facebook live mentions

Actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson using the celebrities-only Live for Facebook Mentions. 

Credit: Facebook

The latest trend in social networking is the rise of elitism.

It's not an elitism that's emerging spontaneously from the everyday social interaction of users. Facebook, Apple and Twitter are intentionally devising a new online world of inequality. This new social media elitism is being trotted out as a "feature."

It's sad, too. Egalitarianism used to be the signature attribute of new media.

While old media was a one-to-many affair (whoever was rich or famous had access to the TV cameras or the newspaper headlines while the rest of us were forced to sit in silence and passively receive their communications), new media was participatory and engendered equality. Even the most self-aggrandizing actor or preening musical diva had to set up a Myspace or Twitter or Facebook account and use the same tools and features as everybody else.

Of course, we all haven't enjoyed complete equality in our reach or influence on social networks. Famous people have generally had larger audiences, and therefore more influence. But when the rich and/or famous have talked to us, we've been able to talk back. New media was different from old media in that it was a level playing field, where all of us -- rich and poor, famous and obscure -- used the same set of social media features, tools and interaction spaces.

Now Facebook, Apple and Twitter are intentionally undoing all of that.

Facebook last week joined the video-streaming parade by rolling out a feature called Live. Like Meerkat and Periscope, Live enables users to stream near-real-time video from their smartphones to anyone who wants to watch.

The difference is that full participation in Live is exclusive to famous people. Just like TV, anyone can watch. But only elites can broadcast.

The full name of this feature is "Live for Facebook Mentions." The Mentions service, which Facebook introduced about a year ago, is exclusively for celebrities. Mentions members get Facebook tools and features that aren't available to anyone else. Examples include ways to find out who's talking about them and the ability to launch Q&A sessions.

Facebook's introduction of old-media-style elitism into social networking isn't an isolated case. It's part of a larger trend.

Apple tried and failed with its iTunes Ping social network five years ago. Ping was a social network centered around music. It leveraged the iTunes user base to get buy-in. Apple wanted music stars to get on Ping. But, as was the case with all major social networks back then, everyone was invited.

Sadly for Apple, most declined. Users ignored it, so Apple killed it.

Fast-forward to 2015. Apple has fixed what was wrong with Ping in part by excluding the public from full participation.

The result is Connect, Apple's new music-focused social network. But it works like old media, not new media.

Connect is a social network where famous people in the music business get to communicate to a public that is excluded from full participation. Apple explicitly segregates everyone who uses Connect into "Artists" and "Fans." The rest of the slogan is "Zero Interference," by which the company apparently means that elite celebrities can post without interference from the noise created when the public is also allowed to post.

The new social media elitism may actually have been started by Twitter, which uses user-verification as a way to create a country club environment where members get special privileges.

The verified users concept is widespread on social networks. It has benefits both for the verified and unverified in that it often lets people know when a prominent person's account is authentic.

But on Twitter, verified users have an exclusive set of tools that show them data about the people who follow them. They can also opt out of group direct messages and do other things.

The most elitist of these features is a switch that lets Verified users turn off notifications from non-verified users. That feature transforms open, public Twitter into a private club where elites can pay attention only to other elites and ignore the riffraff.

Of course, small elite social networks have existed for more than a decade. They're places where the wealthy can gather and socialize beyond the reach of the public. One such site, called aSmallWorld, launched 11 years ago.

This year, a few more have come online. One is called Squa.re, which has a social component but also has shopping and event listings.

Forbes.com and Tinder last week announced an exclusive and ageist social network. It's a social app called Forbes Under 30. To join this new social network, you have to be one of the approximately 2,000 people featured in the four Forbes 30 Under 30 lists published to date. So not only must you be hand-selected by Forbes, if you're older than 34 you're not even eligible for consideration.

What's new isn't that there are tiny, obscure, somewhat insignificant social networks where people can avoid the public. What's new is that now some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley -- Facebook, Apple and Twitter -- are creating elite enclaves within their social offerings that threaten to turn the mainstream, egalitarian new media into the elitist old media.

The retreat back to old media isn't merely conceptual. Take Facebook's Live feature, for example: It doesn't have any new media stars -- no YouTube celebrities or others who got famous on the Internet. In order to qualify as a user of Facebook's new-media streaming service, you have to be an old-media star. It's the only criterion for access.

The biggest companies in Silicon Valley are turning new media into old media for one simple reason: There's more money to be made in old-media-style elitism.

When everybody's equal on social networks, the only options for monetization are  advertising, which is unreliable, or subscriptions, which don't work because everybody expects social media to be free.

With an old-school class system -- where you have elites with access to exclusive tools, features and benefits to promote their images, brands and products and a public that can only watch and buy -- you can eliminate the noise from regular people with nothing to sell and create scarcity where it hadn't existed in the past.

Welcome to the new media, which is just like the old media. Forget creating content and participating on a level playing field. Sit down. Shut up. And get ready to buy stuff.

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