Investigating the digital wealth gap between users and the tech giants in control
Imagine social media as a giant factory where the foremen are billionaires. A handful of workers are getting a respectable living wage. Some are scraping together a living only if they hustle hard enough and tolerate a lot of uncertainty and risk. But by far the vast majority are simply working for free. The bosses would probably expect a strike at any minute. A strike if they’re lucky.
And OK, a factory is an imperfect analogy for the social media apps and sites we like to call “the attention economy,” because, in theory, we’re using them for fun, but that’s been getting less and less true for years, and it feels more like we’re just stuck with them. Meanwhile, the companies own what we produce there: our data. And they make vast sums of money off that data by selling targeted ads and otherwise eroding our privacy. It’s becoming more apparent every day that this tradeoff isn’t working out for one of the parties involved. It leaves normal users at a serious disadvantage, and in some cases even the celebrities and influencers who actually see a monetary benefit aren’t happy with the deal either.
So the fight to solve the problems with social media is going to fall along a new divide: the people who benefit heavily from the attention economy versus the users.
The fight to solve the problems with social media is going to fall along a new divide: the people who benefit heavily from the attention economy versus the users.
“We’re willing to kind of give up parts of our privacy, parts of our self-determination, because there’s something that we get in return and that’s typically security,” Sandra Matz, an associate professor of business at Columbia University told Mashable. “That’s typically convenience, that’s service, that’s something that makes our life better. There were always these trade-offs between keeping information private to ourselves versus putting it out there and getting something in return. The problem with the new tech world or digital world is that the balance is just totally off.”
Matz said this gap is growing larger and larger every day because giving away our data in order to use products online is the status quo — most of us don’t even think about it. Instead, what’s happening is social media users are actually engaging in labor of some form or another by posting on the platforms and giving tech giants the data they need to sell ads, and users aren’t being compensated for that.
Philip Napoli, a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, told Mashable that we create monetizable data every single time we create content, post something, react to another post, or share anything online. For instance, Instagram might see that you’ve been interacting with a lot of fitness influencers. The company can then sell that data to advertisers, and start feeding you ads for workout clothes. Using Instagram and interacting with accounts and influencers is a kind of labor that generates data, which generates money. But you don’t reap any of those monetary benefits. “All that is essentially a labor that generates the data that is monetizable and fuels that economy,” he said.
“I don’t think people have a sense of how valuable this data really is.”
“I don’t think people have a sense of how valuable this data really is,” Matz said. “That leads to this class divide where people don’t understand and that’s part of the reason why they don’t ask for compensation.”
You might legitimately enjoy, say, exchanging messages with people on Facebook, or accumulating Twitter likes, so you might not see this as some form of unpaid labor. But, as Napoli said, “what gets lost in that individual calculus are any notions of the collective good.”
If we own our data, and are allowed to do with it what we see fit, we could take the money tech companies make from our data and put it directly into our own pockets. This is an attractive thought, but we wouldn’t actually make a ton of money individually from our own data — probably just a few dollars, Napoli said. That’s why it’s important to see this as a collective issue instead of an individual one.
“It’s in the aggregation that it’s worth so much,” Napoli said. “And so it’s that collective thinking about how our labor, how the data we generate fuels this ecosystem, that falls by the wayside.”
And that’s exactly what continues to drive the massive gap between users and tech platforms.
Similar to the wealth income gap, there are fluctuations in how much power people have in the lower rung of the attention economy. For instance, influencers make their living off of the attention economy, and it would be pretty easy to blame them for part of this gap. Celebrity social media users are accessible, and make good targets for criticism precisely because they’re ubiquitous, and have human faces, unlike a massive, untouchable corporation like Meta or TikTok. But they still have no power over the tech itself and have no control over their own data. And tech companies reap huge benefits from influencers.
There’s some apparent effort by platforms to close that gap, at least for influencers. They aren’t giving them control over their own data or bringing them into the decision-making process, but they’re offering services that can help compensate them to keep them making more content.
Twitter introduced a “tip jar” that allows people to send money to other users, and you can “Super Follow” tweeters by paying them for bonus content. On TikTok, creators with at least 10,000 followers can join the Creator Fund, which pays them based on the views of their videos. Instagram is launching a paid subscription service for creators similar to Twitter’s Super Follows, too. But all of these tools are specifically targeted towards influencers — regular users will likely not reap any of those benefits.
“Who accumulates the money and power from the attention economy? It is gathering at the top, it’s gathering at the tech companies,” Emily Hund, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, told Mashable. “But that’s not to say that there aren’t other parties involved who benefit. Advertisers benefit, some influencers benefit too.”
Influencers rely on these platforms, but Hund says the relationship can be rocky. At any moment, a platform could decide to completely change — like Instagram adding Reels and Twitter adding Spaces.
“There is a sense that it can all be taken away from them at a moment’s notice by a platform changing their algorithm, changing their terms of service, with no warning,” Hund said. “That can have a huge impact on influencers’ livelihoods. And so they are really not the ones in control.”
What is the digital divide?
“There are no formalized communication channels between influencers and the platforms on which they work, which is just wild to me and needs to change immediately”
Just look at when OnlyFans banned sexually explicit content, disrupting entire streams of income for influencers on the platform. They later backtracked, due to collective backlash from creators, but the threat is constantly looming over their heads.
“There are no formalized communication channels between influencers and the platforms on which they work, which is just wild to me and needs to change immediately,” Hund said.
Influencers may be the most productive employees in the factory, but they have to nimbly change their job descriptions or fall into ruin overnight. A person who find success in one area may have to suddenly become a photographer, a videographer, a podcast producer, or a talking head at a moment’s notice if they want to stay in the game.
Influencers are beginning to recognize the work they do to keep platforms afloat. In 2021, SAG-AFTRA began covering social media influencers and content creators in their 160,000-member union. But they need to do more, Hund argues, by seeing the true value of what they bring to these platforms: data.
“Can we imagine a system where our contributions could be better used to leverage responsibility as far as minimizing the harms? That’s one possibility I haven’t really thought through,” Napoli said. “Can we imagine some scenario where we receive some kind of compensation? I think that’s much less feasible, and I don’t know how you would manage it.”
Napoli looks to Section 230, a law that protects tech companies from lawsuits related to what users post on their platforms. CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all been open about making changes to it. In its inception, the decades-old law created a default business model for the internet, which is to host a bunch of third-party content. People wanted to share stuff with their friends and family, and there was rarely a reason to think about an audience larger than that. But that’s not the case anymore. If it isn’t Section 230, Hund argues that “some sort of legislation related to transparency for tech companies is necessary.”
Beyond federal regulation, we can look to the private sector, where companies are working to close the gap, like MePrism, a marketplace for data.
“Your virtual footprint can really only be used by monetizing some form of economic value about you,” Tom Daly, the founder of MePrism, told Mashable. “Mine can only be used about me, and if that’s the case, it really seems crazy that 300 million U.S. consumers have no idea that their property is being bought, sold, for how much, for what purposes, and by whom. When, on the other side, there’s a handful of corporations who do know exactly what they’re paying for and how they’re using it. We fundamentally believe that that is a major massive contributor to income inequality.”
And we can look at users, too. Some creators themselves are fighting back in the only way they can: by going on strike and unionizing.
“The incentive structure broadly speaking is broken, and the fixes will come from people who are working in the industry, people who are users, and government bodies in some form,” Hund said.
But that requires millions of people to organize and act collectively, which isn’t an easy feat. Overall, most experts agree that we need to educate people on “basic digital literacy.” That way, users will know how and what they’re contributing to the attention economy — and their inherent power.
“It would be great if some of that collective value that we are essentially seeding to these platforms could be leveraged into them being more socially responsible and how they operate these platforms,” Napoli said.
In the end, a lot needs to change. Maybe we create some kind of users bill of rights, or a Facebook oversight board that actually works, or a rewriting of Section 230, or new legislation altogether.
“If you combine all of these puzzle pieces, then we might be getting a little bit closer,” Matz said. “But closing the gap? I don’t think we ever will. If we can shrink it, instead of widening, which is probably what’s going to happen if we don’t intervene, that would already be a success.”