Facebook and Twitter are, of course, increasingly trying to prove that they can be real, self-sustaining businesses with meaningful revenues, and maybe even consistently positive cash flow. Good for them!
But what about the rest of us -- the great unwashed masses of social-media addicts? What are we getting out of the deal?
Before we get too far into this new decade, let's pull back a second and ask: Are we all just toiling mightily to make a bunch of rich nerds (Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his employees and investors, Twitter's Biz Stone and Evan Williams and their employees and investors) richer, while we impoverish ourselves?
I'm not trying to be melodramatic here. For one thing, both Twitter and Facebook are demonstrably robbing us of our privacy -- and the sole ownership of our own thoughts, emotions, personal expressions, etc. (Or, rather, we're sitting back and allowing the theft to occur.) Last September in a column titled "Twitter: A Vampire That Can Legally Suck the Life Out of You," I wrote that Twitter had made little-noticed changes to its TOS (Terms of Service) that give it the right to do whatever it wants with your tweets. Though you "retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services," that's merely a technicality, because if you use Twitter you're automatically giving it "a worldwide, nonexclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed)." And sure enough, after my column was published, Twitter ended up doing deals to license its data stream -- your and my tweets -- to Google and Bing for their search engines.
Meanwhile, Facebook got all sneaky with its TOS at the end of the year. If you haven't yet read Ryan Tate's Dec. 14 Valleywag post titled "Facebook's Great Betrayal," it's a great place to start to understand how Facebook suddenly changed its business relationship with you. "Facebook's privacy pullback isn't just outrageous," Tate begins, "it's a landmark turning point for the social network. ... The company has, in short, turned evil."
But privacy isn't all we're giving away.
As of this writing, Twitter has just 156 employees. Facebook currently says it has "1,000+" employees -- a shockingly tiny work force for a site with 350 million active users. Neither company needs a lot of warm bodies because you and I are doing most of the work: perpetually creating and uploading vast amounts of fresh content that Twitter and Facebook can do with as they please.
Think of these companies as the Walmarts of the 21st century -- behemoths that steamroller American (and global) culture, radically reconfigure communities big and small, and take share from everyone else (in their case, media mindshare) -- only they have an almost all-volunteer work force. And you're one of the volunteers.
Now, depending on what business you're in, maybe you're fine with that. If you're a brand marketer, chances are good that you're extracting real value from investing time and energy in social media (and you're happy to have consumers volunteering their time to be your "brand ambassadors" or whatever you want to call them); good for you. (And if you're a consumer who gets off on connecting with big brands -- or just wants to interface with customer service in a forum, like Twitter, where certain marketers seem to be hyper-responsive -- well, good for you too.) In general, if you're soft-selling something -- like content or an idea -- that can benefit from free publicity, Facebook and Twitter are your friends. Even if, well, they're the two-faced sort who think nothing of riffling through your handbag or backpack when you get up to go the bathroom -- you know, glad-handing "friends" (those are air quotes) who are obviously using you for something, only it's not always entirely clear what.
For my part, I've made a point of never posting anything particularly personal on Facebook, and you won't find out where I am or what I'm doing from my Twitter feed. I mostly just tweet links to things I'm reading that I'm happy to share with my followers, and I also tweet links when I publish new columns and stuff. My Twitter ROI -- the return I get on the time I invest in tweeting -- feels like it's worth it. For one thing, because I track in-bound links to my column on Bit.ly, I know that I've gotten literally tens of thousands of additional page views to my column and its offshoots, thanks to readers tweeting and retweeting links. So, thank you, Twitter.
But what if you're not in the business of selling content or a "personal brand" or whatnot? What's the payoff then? All that time and energy spent making virtual connections with friends and strangers, tweeting ephemera, tagging pictures, etc. -- does the, say, entertainment value or networking/emotional benefit (e.g., getting to feel "connected") outweigh the opportunity cost (i.e., if you spend 20 hours a month on Facebook, what could you do with those 20 hours instead)?
I've said this before, but I'll say it again here: Is your time better spent communicating with the people you're not with than communicating with the people you're actually with? In short, how do you figure out the tipping point at which you're doing more for Facebook and Twitter -- doing, basically, pro bono work to make paper billionaires even richer -- than Facebook and Twitter are doing for you?
I leave you to do your own personal math.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco