A lot of people, including me, have made fretful bleating noises about the dismal economics of conventional media. Not so many have made the same bleats about social media, even though these businesses aren't exactly printing cash.Just today the Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube owner's Google are “aggressively pushing new ad formats and ramping up deals with media companies” in an attempt to make some money from the popular video site. Google acquired YouTube over three years ago and has struggled to make it pay.
Google isn't alone. In 2005 News Corp. bought MySpace for $580 million, only to see the site's popularity wain as Facebook adoption exploded. Earlier this month News Corp. announced a quarterly loss of $205M, citing MySpace as a big cost-sink. Not that rival Facebook is exactly rolling in cash itself – the company hopes to get cash-flow positive by 2010, even as the number of subscribers spirals above 250 million. In March this year Facebook let go of its CFO, and in May sold stock at an evaluation well below the price Microsoft took when it bought into the company back in 2007. Meanwhile, the social media darling Twitter is enjoying a kind of celebrity and ubiquity that seems to eclipse even famous users Obama, Kutcher, and the Iranian nation state, yet the company has essentially zero revenue and is fumbling for a business model.
This is an enviable problem to have. As more and more of our lives drift into the ether, many of these companies are becoming invaluable. Most will find a way to extract payment – directly or indirectly – from us all. The usual default model – advertising – might well work, although I remain skeptical that over the long haul this alone will be enough. And without a doubt some of the social media giants of today will wilt and disappear: People are fickle, fads change, and the very success that many social media sites enjoy will make them less appealing to users who's time and attention become stretched thinner amid all the clutter and noise.
All these services are turning the Internet into a modern-day Babel. The real money may be in technologies that keep all this information at bay, and offer ways to filter, find, manage, and assimilate content, or mechanisms for presenting and preserving our digital indentities in a coherent and controlled way. We need protection. Social media services may not charge a dollar but they ain't free -- they cost us all way too much time.