The Limits of Your Power as an End User

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Spotify just announced that it will soon allow users to block specific artists across their service. The decision comes on the heels of the growing backlash against R. Kelly:

Recently, Spotify has come under increased pressure to offer a block feature after a documentary surfaced details of 25 years of accusations of sexual violence and abuse by singer R. Kelly. A #MuteRKelly protest has helped bring attention to the accusations, and RCA Records has reportedly dropped R. Kelly from its label. Spotify previously removed R. Kelly from its own curated playlists, but this did very little as the singers music was still available to stream on its service.

Spotify will soon let you mute and block artists

This responsiveness from Spotify to the needs of its end users stands in sharp contrast to what we see happening at Facebook and Google+.

The most obvious difference is that end users actually pay a monthly or annual fee for the Spotify service. That means that accidentally listening to an R. Kelly song because it’s in someone’s playlist means that some (very small) portion of my money is going to him. As a paying end user, I have some leverage over Spotify that makes it more likely they will listen to my wishes for the service.

You Get What You Pay For

In contrast, I never paid Google for all that time I spent on Google+, just as I don’t pay Twitter or Facebook to use their services. And you know what? I have absolutely no input into the direction of these services as a result. To be clear, it’s not that these services aren’t listening to me. They track my interactions with them in excruciating detail, but they do it statistically and at an Internet-scale made possible by automated self-service platforms that anonymize me as one small mote in a vast pool of user data. I do not matter specifically — only statistically.

One natural response to this situation is simple: you get what you pay for.

The problem is that, while it is true that we do not pay for these services, that doesn’t mean we aren’t investing in them. I just did a quick calculation, assuming I averaged about twenty minutes for each of my Google+ posts. At Seattle’s $15 minimum wage, that translates into $27,000 — add in time commenting and that probably doubles. It feels crass translating this time into money like this, but I do so to illustrate a simple point. Many of us are investing serious time and energy into these services that could be used for lots of other things.

If weren’t for these investments, these services would simply cease to exist.

End User Investments

We aren’t there yet but I think we headed to a world where end users start to demand that their investments in web platforms be treated with more respect. For Google to simply shut down Google+ after people have invested thousands of hours into building community, relationships and content feels like a huge betrayal of trust. Similarly, how is it that someone can spend countless hours building up a following for their page on Facebook, only to have the company suddenly tweak its algorithms so that it becomes virtually impossible for posts from that page to show up in those followers newsfeed?

End users invest in Internet giants every day. Do we get something from those investments? Of course we do: we get to use these services. But the fact that these companies are some of the world’s most valuable suggests that maybe our contributions are worth more than is currently assumed.

Building Monopsonies

It’s one thing not to be paid for these contributions because we agreed to the terms of that deal going in. But what we didn’t understand was that our investments in these platforms would make us increasingly dependent upon them over time. Our relationships are there, our communities, and even our content. As suppliers of the data, content, and relationships that make these entities work, we are building their power while eroding our own. In a way, we are creating an odd new form of monopsony.

That market power that we are vesting in these entities with all our contributions of time and energy is not really good for us. We have no say in the directions of these platforms and, as the Google+ case so vividly demonstrates, no guarantee that our investments will continue to be preserved over time.

As we learn to see this, we will gradually begin to take more control of our content and data, as well as our investments of time and energy more generally. We will do this through new, decentralized technologies like Solid and the sooner we get there, the better off we’ll be both individually and as a society.

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