Mobile App Development

Are Open-Source, Subscription-Based Apps the Future of Social Media?

Are Open-Source, Subscription-Based Apps the Future of Social Media?

Social media sites have been around since the early 2000s at least, and over the past two decades, they have undoubtedly grown to dominate significant aspects of our mental, emotional, and social lives. In its latest report, the World Economic Forum stated that the average global user spends around 2.5 hours a day on social media. 

While these trends may differ widely across countries and cultures, we can at least agree (based on available data and personal experience) that social media has a serious role to play in our lives. And that's justifiably so since mobile app development companies have been at it for decades now; creating engaging applications that help us connect and interact better. 

That said, as a bunch, social media apps aren't perfect, nor are they static. Like most technologies, these have their flaws and are subject to change. As these apps continue to evolve, what's worth discussing is how they can be potentially improved upon. But first, let's uncover the major flaws that plague modern social media apps.

The Price We Pay For FREE Social Media

Almost every leading social media platform today is free for the average user. That's great for the platform's accessibility but bad for the company's profits

Therefore, social media companies need to find clever ways of monetizing their products. And considering how big some of the major players in the space have gotten, it's obvious that their current monetization strategies are doing great.

How do Social Media Apps Make Money?

Perhaps the best (and most controversial) way of describing your typical social media revenue model is the popular, often overused saying:

If it's free, then you are the product.

To be precise, your data is the product. Social media companies use user-generated data to better curate and present relevant ads to their users. The primary way these companies make money, therefore, is through advertising.

But in order to maximize the revenue potential from advertisements, companies need to rely on extensive data mining practices, which, as we all know, have led to serious privacy issues in the recent past. 

Consequently, users are growing increasingly wary of these brands and platforms. Quitting Facebook, for instance, is something people look up to these days. 

The other downside of an ad-based revenue model is that companies need to maximize screen time in order to maximize revenue. 

All of this is facilitated by the invention and use of addictive (and some would even say exploitative) algorithms. Social media apps are specifically designed to be addictive. They hack into our psychology, exploiting our brains on a chemical level to ensure we keep scrolling (also the reason why all feeds are virtually endless.) 

The combined effect of it all is that social media is beginning to have a negative impact on society's mental health as a whole.

Zeynep Tufekci sums it up best in her Ted talk saying, "We're building a dystopia just to make people click on ads."  

But luckily, these challenges and issues have made their way into public discourse. As we speculate on the risks and dangers of present-day social media, we also open up the possibility of addressing and improving upon them. 

That said, it might be worth discussing some of the ways in which present-day social media can be improved. These ideas aren't new; if anything, they've been around for a while now, but for what it's worth, there is a good possibility that this is what the next generation of social media apps could look like.

The News: Elon Musk and his Twitter Extravaganza

On April 14th, Elon Musk made big news as he announced his offer to buy Twitter for $54.20 dollar per share, at a grand total of $44 Billion. 

Contrary to popular belief, the offer wasn't a sudden move. A Musk-Twitter collaboration had been brewing for some time now, and things escalated quickly after Musk purchased a 9% stake within Twitter back in April. Though the deal seems to be on hold as of now, what's relevant here is the discussion this potential acquisition sparked.  

Soon after making his original offer, Musk took to Twitter to announce the numerous changes he would like to implement within the platform. Unsurprisingly though, these random tweets divided the internet into two halves. What followed seemed like an unending stream of tweets, blog posts, and arguments, both for and against the ideas Musk had for Twitter.

Circling back to the original thesis of this post, the reason why this discussion is relevant is because some of the ideas presented by Musk could actually improve a platform like Twitter. These give us an insight into an alternate way of thinking about building a social media app. When implemented right, these principles can potentially address the major flaws (as discussed above) that plague modern social media apps. 

So let's dive into two of the most prominent ideas that sprung from the Musk-Twitter extravaganza and find out if they are worth the hype.

Idea #1: Open Source Algorithms

Soon after Twitter accepted Musk's offer to buy out the platform, the billionaire took to Twitter to discuss his plans for the platform. The most prominent of these tweets was the one below that brought up the idea of open-sourcing Twitter's algorithm.

open source algorithm poll

Source: Twitter

The Real Reason Why Musk Wants an Open-Source Twitter….

Elon Musk is a free-speech maximalist. He has been critical and vocal in the past about Big Tech's political biases and censorship. He considers open-sourcing Twitter a potential solution to the problem of censorship that seems to be embedded in the platform's very code. 

He believes opening up the platform to the public can help spot and eliminate bias and put the power back in the hands of the users. While app development experts are divided in their opinion on transparency being the best solution to addressing political bias within algorithms, it is evident that transparent algorithms are always welcome. 

Pros: Open-Source Algorithms Offer Transparency to The User

If open algorithms can educate the public on how to avoid algorithmic bias, they could also potentially educate them on how the algorithms take advantage of our psychology and keep us scrolling. Open source social media can help users make informed decisions about the platforms they use, thereby addressing some of the issues associated with today's social media apps, as discussed above. 

If users disagree with an app's design principles, they can either suggest changes or opt-out entirely; but at least they know what's up. That's only possible when companies and apps are transparent and open algorithms allow them to do so.

The promise of an open-source social media platform is very lucrative. For starters, such a project would be devoid of extensive data mining that most social apps today are guilty of. Moreover, transparent algorithms would democratize these platforms, dissolving the power consolidated in the hands of a select few silicon-valley elites and distributing it back to the general public. Opening up these algorithms will also prevent them from being used in a way that exploits the general users. Establishing this trust is critical as our collective dependencies on algorithms continue to increase. 

These are massive advantages in favor of open-sourcing algorithms, but that doesn't mean doing so doesn't come with its own cons and challenges. 

Cons: ‘Open-Sourcing a Platform isn’t as Easy as Uploading some Code on GitHub…’

Of Course, none of it is as easy as it sounds. There are serious concerns and challenges with open-sourcing platforms like Twitter that cannot be overlooked. For instance, as pointed out by Wired magazine, "In reality, cracking Twitter open to see how it truly works would involve a lot more than just uploading some code to GitHub….."

They state, "There is no 'master algorithm' for Twitter." 

Meaning content and recommendations are powered by a complex interplay between constantly changing algorithms, enormous data and unpredictable human actions. In other words, Twitter's behavior cannot be predicted solely based on its algorithm; user interaction and data flow also play a crucial role in the final outcome.

wired quote algorithms

On top of that, even if it were possible to decipher twitter's code amidst the chaos of data and interacting algorithms, there is a good chance that such an understanding would do more harm than good. 

Critics are warning us that opening up Twitter's algorithm can swiftly lead to its weaponization. 

It would basically be an official tutorial for bad actors and spam bots to exploit the algorithm, further exaggerating the negative elements that plague the platform. 

But perhaps the worst effect of open-sourcing an app like Twitter would be on the business side of things. The idea of open-sourcing a project generally implies allowing third parties to copy and build up on the original source code. This shareability destroys all monetization potential. That explains why some of the most popular open-source projects today are powered primarily by donations. 

Meaning if today's tech giants were to go open-source overnight, sustaining these billion-dollar organizations would be next to impossible. 

To sum it up then, the concept of an open and transparent social media app is incredibly popular and justifiably attractive. And though there have been successful iterations of such in the past, like Mastodon, the idea is yet to be tested on larger scales. 

One of the major challenges to privately owned open-source social networks is the difficulty of monetizing a platform that relies on shady data harvesting. Luckily, another of Musk's ideas for Twitter's future can shed some light on alternate monetization models that can be crucial for building ethical social networks.

Idea #2: Paid or Subscription based Social Media

Most social media apps we use today are free of charge, and that's by design. A decade ago, when these apps and companies were starting out, the internet was a much different arena. 

People (apart from silicon valley enthusiasts) weren't necessarily familiar with social media, nor were apps and software back then as user-friendly, polished and capable. To attract a sizable audience then, it made sense to offer your products for free. Free social made apps were extremely accessible but had to rely on advertisements for revenue as a consequence. 

Today however, the world is much different. People are a lot more comfortable with the idea of paying for software while having grown weary of targeted ads. The possibility of paid social media apps has now become a lot more practical.

Here is where another tweet from Musk on the matter of improving Twitter becomes relevant.

twitter feel for businesses

Source: Twitter

Pros: How Subscription Based Social-Media Can Put an End to Predatory Advertisement

The idea of paid social media has been gaining traction in the tech world for quite some time now. Primarily to liberate social networking sites from a crippling dependency on advertisements which makes aggressive data mining almost mandatory for companies to remain profitable. 

In fact, a subscription-based premium Twitter service already exists!

Around a year ago, Twitter launched its first-ever subscription offering named Twitter Blue. It's currently available in 4 countries for a subscription fee of $3/month. It offers some premium features like undo tweets, reading mode, bookmark folders, and ad-free articles, to name a few.

And there are some serious advantages of going ad-free. First, using the app doesn't feel like signing up for an extended commercial anymore. The focus and experience shift away from the ads, and towards the social connections, these apps were meant to foster in the first place.  

A paid social media service is also likely to reduce the number of fake and spam accounts to a considerable extent. Charging a small fee discourages bad actors from participating, making the whole experience a lot more genuine and relevant for legit users. 

Cons: Better Experience Doesn’t Always Mean More Profit

But let's talk numbers; how has a subscription service worked out for companies like Twitter in the past year?

This is where advertisements beat subscriptions, and that too by a large margin. 

In last year's final quarter report, Twitter remarked that more than 89% of its total revenue came from advertisements (a 41% year-on-year increase). That brings Twitter's remaining revenue streams at a total of $140 million for the quarter (this includes Twitter Blue), which, if you can't tell, isn't much in the grand scheme of things. 

Let's run another example to understand this problem better. In 2021, Facebook reported annual revenue of around $115 billion. As of 2022, the platform has roughly 3 billion users. Meaning, that in order to shift entirely to a paid subscription-based revenue model, Facebook would need to charge $320 a month to match its current revenue. (Calculations based on the assumption that only 1% of Facebook's user base gets converted) 

facebook subscription revenue

I’m not sure about you, but last I checked facebook’s services weren’t worth $320 a month!

Subscription based social media, as you can tell, isn't easy to pull off. 

The point here is that despite significant demand for subscription-based social networking services, the revenue these companies have been generating with advertisements is really hard to match. That's because companies have perfected their products to maximize ad revenue over the past decade or so. 

However, this doesn't mean ads are here to stay. 

Most major companies have plateaued in terms of acquiring new users, especially in mature markets like the US, and some, in fact, are losing daily active users at an alarming rate. 

Goodfirms social media future quote

Not to mention, ad-free social media is much more pleasant to use. Getting rid of ads can actually increase the product's overall quality, making users willing to pay a lot more for it than they originally would have. Also, there is always the option for a hybrid monetization model where the app might have a basic 'free version' that allows for targeted advertisements and a paid one that remains ad-free. 

Ultimately, we don't know how ad-free, paid social media will perform, and someone will have to venture into these deep waters to test it out. It's assuring to see companies like Twitter trying just that. 

To Conclude: What the Future of Social Media Might Look Like

Social media is here to stay, but the time for pesky, targeted advertisements and extensive data mining seems to be coming to an end. As social media marketing trends and audience preferences continue to evolve, the platforms we use to interact, communicate, and do business will also change. 

Technology takes a turn toward previously unexplored directions every few decades or so. It happened in the late 70s with the personal computer and the late 90s with the internet; now, I believe we stand at a similar junction with social media. The approach and philosophy we implement toward social media apps in the coming few years will likely determine the decades-long future of these life-style defining apps.  

Open source and paid social media apps may not completely solve all the major problems plaguing modern social networking, but they present a focal point for further discussion. By admitting that our current software isn't perfect, we open up the possibility of being able to improve upon it in the coming future. What do you think the future of social media apps will look like?

Darren Mathew
Darren Mathew

Darren is a writer passionate about Technology, Business, and the evolving relationship between the two. He often tries to bring intriguing perspectives to otherwise familiar ideas, striving to help his audience reimagine the ever-changing tech landscape. He works as a blogger and content marketeer at GoodFirms—a leading review and rating platform built to help brands pick the right service providers for them.

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