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What We Think

22 Jan 2019
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While some people believe that paying to access social networks is the future of social media, others take the opposite view. Imagine if the networks paid their users. Would it be viable in the long-term?

Steemit is a social media site (launched in March 2016 ) that uses blockchain to reward users for creating content on the site. It’s one of several sites out there that uses the digital currency STEEM.

Blockchain lets Steemit track which user created a post and ensures that the digital currency payment gets to the right person.

In Steemit’s words:

“Every day, the Steem blockchain mints new STEEM tokens and adds them to a community’s “rewards pool”. These tokens are then awarded to users for their contributions, based on the votes that their content receives. Users who hold more tokens in their account as “Steem Power” will get to decide where a larger portion of the rewards pool is distributed.”

In short, it’s like Reddit with rewards.

It’s unusual for a social network to pay its users (although there are others out there). Social networks that use cryptocurrency to pay their users are always vulnerable to the changing state of the crypto market. Steemit had to lay off 70% of its employees in late November 2018 as the cryptocurrency market took a dive.

Is it a good idea to pay users?

In it for the money

In principle, anything is a good idea that helps to make the network a better place and encourages more people to join and contribute. But, as pointed out by Pipes to Platform, these kind of networks can attract users who are focused on making money with little thought to the quality of their posts.

Steemit’s idea of paying creators of the most endorsed posts mitigates this risk by rewarding content that other users find valuable, thereby strengthening the network and making it a nicer place to be (and so increasing the chance of attracting and keeping new users).

Users who might get involved for financial reasons might also end up staying for different reasons. Research from Michigan State University on the topic of online communities examined the user-generated encyclopedia and (creative) writing platform everything2.com. When looking at what motivated users to contribute, they discovered that motivations evolve throughout a users’ lifecycle in an online community. In the case of Steemit, while users may be lured by money at first, their motivations might very well evolve beyond function and become more linked to social and cognitive factors such as a sense of affiliation and identity to the site through feelings of importance and value.

Wealth attracts wealth

Another issue raised by Pipes to Platform may be more of an issue for Steemit.

There’s a tendency on social media for people to gravitate to those with more followers, likes, upvotes and endorsements. These people are often seen as more authoritative and influential.

As a result, the more popular your content is, the more popular it seems to get (for example, if your YouTube channel gets promoted by YouTube and picks up a lot of subs, you’ll likely get more from people who are attracted to the latest ‘must watch’ channel). The theory here is that paying for content becomes less ‘paying for quality content’ and more ‘paying for popularity of the user’.  

What effect would this have on a network as it matures? If users see the same influencers always getting the most money, will they be less motivated to post, or will it inspire them to be the next user that strikes gold?

A network that could experience a similar issue is Minds. Founded in 2015, Minds is another network (more akin to Facebook) that pays users. It pays them for the time they spend on the site and their interaction with other people’s posts.

Users can also pay to boost their posts into people’s timeline or pay other users for sharing their posts. Users that don’t spend much time on the site, or engage with others, will see lots of ads in their newsfeed (unless they pay the site to get them removed).

This comes with its own host of problems. The more wealthy you are, the more money you’ll have to spend on content boosts. And it doesn’t mean that the content you’re promoting is good.

Who owns the network?

Steemit is experiencing another issue that comes from paying users. Payment gives people a tangible investment in the success of the site. They want it to do well because it could make them more money. They feel invested in its success.

According to one Steemit user’s recent post, a secret Slack group (which included Steemit employees and users) started discussing what changes Steemit needed to make to its platform. One person suggested a way to force the owners to make changes, the group started discussing the idea, and this prompted Steemit’s CEO to take action to protect the site against a possible hack.

Reading the user’s post gives the impression of someone who is passionate about the network’s success, but also of someone who feels a sense of power and ownership over the site. By empowering users, Steemit, and networks like it, are creating a collaborative system. One which will come into inevitable conflict when the users demand change that the network owners don’t agree with.

Paying users for their time or content can work, but its capacity to be a long-term solution depends on how the network implements it, and if it has a willingness to listen and adapt to changing user demands.