There is a burgeoning element of social media: subscription services. One might assume that Elon Musk’s announcement of “Twitter Blue” was the spark for social media’s subscription service. In fact, taking a step back one could have seen the writing on the wall.
An early and famous (yet implicit) statement on subscription services came from Mark Zuckerberg. In April 2018, Zuckerberg was brought to the US Senate to be questioned about Facebook’s role in the 2016 US Presidential election. During his appearance, former Senator Orrin Grant Hatch asked Zuckerberg, “In 2010… you said back then that Facebook would always be free. Is that still your objective?” to which Zuckerberg responded, “Senator, yes. There will always be a version of Facebook that is free…”.
In 2019, Facebook (now Meta) also quietly changed their original slogan: “It’s free and always will be” to “It’s quick and easy”. Pre-Elon, it was reported back in 2020 and 2021 that Twitter was looking into a subscription service. YouTube has offered a subscription service, YouTube Premium, since 2014. Reddit also started its premium service in 2018.
Now, most major social media platforms have some form of subscription service.
An interesting question to ask is why subscription services are starting to become more common. There are two main reasons. In 2021, Apple changed their data collection policy. Apps now allow users to opt out of being tracked, which has made it more difficult for social media companies to collect data. Furthermore, privacy laws are starting to catch-up and limit capability of social media companies’ collection of data. Therefore, social media companies are looking to “diverse their revenue”. There might, however, be a third reason.
The economic lifeblood of social media is the collection of users’ data which Shoshana Zuboff argues leads to a “no exit” situation, a necessary condition of surveillance capitalism: ““No exit” is the necessary condition for [the] Big Other to flourish” (Zuboff 2019: 488). A useful comparison of Zuboff’s Big Other and “no exit” situation is Orwell’s Big Brother. However, the key distinction is that Zuboff’s Big Other is imposing itself via commercial pursuit and controls in the Deleuze and Guattari sense, and not in a Foucauldian/Orwellian disciplining sense. However, like all capitalist systems, Zuboff’s “no exit” situation and surveillance model function on contradictions. For example, social media companies’ pursuit of commodifying users’ data to be repackaged and sold to advertisers, in hopes of influencing future behaviour, causes a tension. If the surveillance model achieves a “no exit” situation and all future behaviour is commodified, how will the surveillance model sustain itself? As Marx stated in his third volume of Capital: “The true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself…” (Marx et al. 1946: 349), Surveillance Capitalism falls into the same problem.
The SMSM is the response to this contradiction. It provides an exit for this contradiction and as one media outlet has reported, a way for social media companies “to diversify away from ad revenue”. In the not-too-distant future, readers of this blog will be able to say: “I remember when social media used to be free”.
Developing alongside the SMSM, is a new social media subject: the subscription user. The subscription users, provides new questions and fresh critiques. For instance, the creation of a subscription user establishes a new tier/class system; for those who have access and those who do not. This tier/class system not only highlights an economic exclusionary dynamic (those who can afford the subscription), but also on a deeper ideological level. For example, the subscription user embodies the Lacanian/Žižekian surplus-enjoyment in that part of their enjoyment is based on others not having access, creating an excess that is constitutive for enjoyment. Previous generations of social media promised a democratic utopia of freedom, solidarity and community (Instagram’s original slogan, “Capture and Share the World’s Moments”; part of Twitter’s mission statement “is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers”; Facebook’s original mission statement: “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”); whereas the subscription user is formulated in a streamlined capitalistic sense: “Pay “X” to fulfil, gain and enjoy “Y””. From a Marxian sense, a reassessment of the role of labour for the subscription subject will be needed due to the subscription subject’s exploitation of their labour will now be fixed to a fee; instead of previous debates of infinite exploitation of one’s data and labour (Fuchs 2014, 2017).
However, the subscription user also embodies a contradiction for the SMSM, acting as a radical, rallying point, point for a democratic change of social media? Or alternatively, does the subscription user increase the concertation of influence and power of a small wealthy elite group?
Social media is changing; the SMSM and the subscription users is part of this evolving change. The opting out of having one’s data tracked on apps, regulations starting to curtail data collection capabilities, the structural contradiction of the surveillance model and the “no exit” situation establish the SMSM as a growing part of social media. As Todd McGowan states: “…capitalism requires interruption in order to survive” (McGowan 2016: 168). The SMSM and growth of the subscription user is the interruption for social media capitalism.
Paul Geyer is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. His research interests include the relationship between ideology and social media.
This blog was originally published here on the Oxford University Politics Blog and has been republished by the CDP under the Creative Commons licence.