If people are unhappy with Facebook, the company's success at selling ads targeted to smartphone users tap-tapping through their News Feeds doesn't show it. Despite a wallop of bad PR over its News Feed manipulation study and some users fleeing the site, the company’s $2.9 billion second quarter earnings outstripped the previous year’s by 61%. Facebook's mobile ad revenue drove much of the growth.
That fact still leaves the social network in a tricky position. Does Facebook primarily function as an arm of the advertising industry, or as a platform that benefits its users? Can it be both? If so, at what point does laser-targeting ads to users become exploitative and creepy, rather than desirable? Plus, if Facebook’s revenue comes from ads piggybacking on user-created content, does that mean users deserve a cut of the profit, too?
Entrepreneurs Arvind Dixit and Jason Zuccari think that if social media platforms are raking in big advertising money, it’s only fair that users are able to monetize themselves. That's why the two old college friends founded a new social media platform that pays users for their posts. After initiating a testing phase in 2012 and a re-launch earlier this month, Dixit and Zuccari's Bubblews.com now retains a total of 300,000 users, each of whom are paid a penny per click, per comment, and per like on their posts.
It's notoriously difficult to start a new social network when success depends on a critical mass of users to get hooked. But given frustrations with Facebook, people are hungry for alternatives, and earning money for social media "work" makes an appealing pitch. Still, as Bubblews's early successes and obstacles show, it's harder than it looks to construct a model that does this well.
"We started the company because we were reading about how a lot of the social media networks out there were creating the world’s largest unpaid workforces," Dixit says. "And we said we could make that different."
On Bubblews, users—or workers, depending on how you see them—receive pay in $50 batches at a time. In order to obtain their first paychecks, Bubblers (as users are called) have to rack up 5,000 likes (or their equivalent) across their posts. Two more caveats: Bubblers can only post in English, and each post has to be a minimum of 400 characters—the length of the first two sentences of this piece.
It's unclear how much money Dixit and Zuccari have already doled out, and how much an average Bubbler makes. Dixit won't disclose the figure, and it also seems a little tricky to calculate, because Bubblers can cash in whenever they want. In theory, a Bubbler could hoard pennies and cash in on his or her deathbed.
Compensating people for social posts gets even more complicated when you take into account rewards that can’t be monetized, says Ramesh Srinivasan, a scholar of digital labor and an associate professor at the University of California-Los Angeles. If Bubblews wants to last, it’ll have to make people feel like it’s a place where they can sincerely enjoy one another’s offerings. After all, Facebook users post to feel rewarded by a sense of community, not necessarily by paycheck.
"The key for [Bubblews] is whether they can balance the feeling of monetizable value, the compensation that they provide to these different users, with the experience of being part of a community that many of us go to Facebook and Twitter for," Srinivasan says.
It’s clear that Bubblews has already managed to cultivate some kind of community, but it’s still a baffling one. Many of the posts I find while browsing the site read like a filibustering senator in his eighth hour at the podium. Some bubbles do contain recipes or personal stories, but somehow, even the barely readable posts yield comments full of praise: It's probably smart to pay it forward when more likes and comments on your posts will get you paid.
Zuccari sees the positive commenting as a sign that Bubblews really does attract a strong sense of community—or at least a strong sense of instant gratification. Both of these things benefit Bubblews, which sells advertising alongside user-generated content. And it's precisely because Bubblews pays users for posts that users don’t feel exploited while writing for the platform, Dixit says.
"We’re not taking any private data from people," Zuccari says. "We know age, as well as location, rather than these other social media sites that are taking private information and using it to target ads."
That rationale doesn’t sit well with everyone, especially those who don’t see the exchange of data for basic online services as a foregone conclusion about the future of the Internet.
"I find the very notion that our social life and the future of the Internet should be framed in terms of monetization both appalling and reductive," says Adam Fish, a professor of sociology and media studies at Lancaster University, located in northern England. "The Internet can be used for more than selling of the self. The intimate details of our lives and the future of the Internet should not be up for sale to the highest bidder or those who have the computing power to crunch the data in such a way so as to be able to sell it to advertising companies."
For better or for worse, social media companies are hunting and selling as much selfhood as possible, and Bubblews has chosen to follow that same basic business model. But if Dixit and Zuccari cast Facebook and Twitter as parks with billboards blocking out the sun, what does that make Bubblews?
"The best thing I would compare us to is a Starbucks," Zuccari says. "It's a place of commerce."