Pheed,, and the Future of Social Networks

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pheed made the news lately because they managed to get a large number of celebs to sign up for their service. Featurewise it’s somewhere between Facebook and Twitter, but the main difference is that you can charge people a monthly fee to follow you, or even for individual posts (called “pheeds”. It’s doesn’t stop there, comments on posts are called “pheedback”).

Now if you’ve read my social media wishlist you might now that I’m a fan of pay-per-view monetization, or at least I think that eventually people will be ready for the content or the audience reach they get on a social network site. If you have a gazillion followers and can bring down any moderately sized web site just by mentioning a link, why shouldn’t you pay for that awesome power?

However, and this is where Pheed is doing it wrong, I don’t think that people will be willing to pay a lot of money for that. On Pheed you can charge people from $1.99 to $34.99 a month to follow your feed, or anything from $1.99 to $34.99 for an individual post (say a new MP3 or a video). Sorry, $2.99 a month just to follow Chris Brown’s life. How does that scale? Do you really think people are willing to pay about thirty bucks to follow their favorite ten celebrities? I don’t think so. Hopefully, Pheed will have different offerings, like a flatrate for $10 a months or something more reasonable, otherwise I don’t believe they’ll be making a lot of money.

Interestingly, Pheed came with rather tight Twitter integration. You could sign in using Twitter, or even tweet from the Pheed website. Unsurprisingly, Twitter cut of Pheed’s API access rather quickly. Twitter’s position is pretty clear, they won’t have it that another social network feeds of the user’s connection on Twitter.

While this is certainly understandable, I also think that Twitter is missing a big opportunity for making some serious money, which brings me to another favorite topic about the current state of the art with social networks.

Depending on who you ask, people have different opinions on what is the biggest problem in social media networks. Some complain that companies are taking all their data and selling it, that you don’t have proper control about your data. But I personally think that the biggest problem is that it is almost impossible to try out something new.

The problem with designing new social media features is that you need a sizeable set of users to see whether ideas really work. But as it is right now, this means that in order to build something new, you have to kickstart your own social networks, and honestly, I think the number of social networks you can be on is a pretty small number.

People who think that control is the biggest problem tend to say that decentralization is the way to go, and efforts like PubSubHubBub, diaspora, or go in that direction, by essentially proposing protocols and building example servers such that we get a decentralized network of servers where everyone can control his own data.

Then there is also who says that the main problem currently is that social media sites have to make money by selling your data because they offer the service for free. On you consequently have to pay about $5 per month to join, but the system itself is again centralized.

I’d personally like to see a solution which is somewhere inbetween. You can have big sites which host millions of users, and also individual smaller servers if you want, but all these sites form one big social media space. It would be able to subscribe to a user which is on any site, irrespective of whether he is on your own site or not.

For that, we need a more high-level protocol which connects the different sites and lets them exchange all the updates they have subscribers for in an aggregated fashion.

This approach has a number of advantages IMHO:

  • The approach is more scalable than a fully decentralized approach. Instead of delivering each message individually to all your subscribers, you only deliver them to the sites which has subscribers which then internally routes your messages using whatever technology it pleases.

  • Sites can hook into the existing infrastructure so users don’t have to completely switch with all your friends to a new social media site, since you can still see the updates from the other sites. Whether you want to switch becomes more dependent on certain features, the easy to share media you’re interested in, etc.

  • Sites can start charging one another for subscribing to users. This also gives an incentive to make your site not suck and attract users which have a lot of followers. If you manage to get Lady Gaga on your site, you will be able to cash in on her content alone (and probably also charge her for her insane number of followers).

  • Some degree of centralization also means that you can do trend analysis or impact analysis, which might be even more useful if you focus on a specific user set. Say your site focusses on tech users, then their trends might even be interesting for companies that they would like to buy this information. For celebrities, getting deep analytics on their impact might be so valuable that they are willing to pay a premium for getting real-time analytics, and so on.

  • Internally, sites are free to try out different sets of features, technologies, and monetarization schemes. You can build a site to attract celebrities, news outlets, or brands, or tech geeks, teens, or privacy die-hards. You can build your own monolithic server farm or rely on P2P to deliver the posts within your framework. You can build services which are free (but cannot access paid content), or you can put a price tag on everything. You can let users pay-per-view or pay-per-follower. The list goes on and on… .

I think people have begun to see that social media sites have some value to users and companies, but to get to the next level, we’d need a bit of infrastructure to create a veritable industry.

Posted by Mikio L. Braun at 2012-10-23 12:59:00 +0000

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