Ideas are like seeds. Some of them sprout, some grow to a level and some become giant trees. This is true for digital platforms as well. The giant trees of our era are WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, with crores of users interacting using them. As organisations and by corollary, platforms grow, they need rules to organise and govern themselves. When they grow too much, they invite new regulations. Our social media platforms are also navigating this cycle. Couple it with the fact that criminals are some of the initial as well as advanced users of most new technologies.
The Government of India has announced new Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code to manage the possible misuse of platforms that make it easy for anyone to communicate with anyone publicly. The guidelines focus on ensuring security of users, redressal of their grievances, ensuring traceability of messages, restricting the flow of illegal information and right classification of digital content. Regulations will evolve as the social media ecosystem evolves and impacts the way we communicate.
As a business, social media platforms invest a lot in building, sustaining and constantly improving their technology platforms. It is not easy to run billions of live conversations without glitches and definitely not without substantial costs. Revenue comes primarily from advertisements or promoted content. Users get to use the platform for free but then the collective number of users is the strength of a network. More the users, more its net worth and more the revenue it can earn.
Social media platforms have opened up a digital industry of sorts giving livelihoods to many pro-users and intermediaries. This includes the digital marketing economy, social media outsourcing agencies and influencers, apart from being a key vertical in any marketing plan today. Platforms enable an economy where they really do not gain directly.
Social media platforms are in perpetual beta mode like most software products. They are evolving as the ecosystem grows as the users ask for, discover or create new uses of the platform. At any point in time, there are problems that need equal attention. Let me share some of the issues that I see as a regular user that need redressal.
Anonymous handles and accounts are a big source of nuisance. No one knows who they are, if it is an individual or a group of people, if they are naive users or fully funded activist groups. It is not easy to identify them. They usually have a huge following owing to sharing a lot of content in their niche. Anonymity gives them a shield to be nasty or abusive. This needs to be addressed. I am aware that a mobile number is now mandatory with most platforms, which in turn is linked to verifiable identity. However, this information is accessible only in case of a serious breach.
Anonymous handles are rarely averse to piracy. I have seen big respectable names also engaging in piracy actively but with anonymous handles, it is rampant, almost a norm, an easy way to build a large following. No one owns the responsibility and the IP owner does not even know whom to report. Instagram is a great example of pirates earning at the cost of original content creators and the platform does not seem inclined to correct it. Going forward, platforms need to come out with mechanisms to identify and honour original content creators. YouTube, though not yet perfect, still manages to identify and penalise piracy to a large extent.
Posting of paid or sponsored content must be declared by the influencers, even when they share personal stories, if they have been shared in lieu of benefits. At one end, social media brings transparency and at the other, these veiled messages blur the same.
When it comes to data privacy, users should have an option to opt out. It would probably mean that I pay for the use of a social media network. So the social media company gets compensated for my use of its platform and in turn it has to keep my data aside and not use it for anything without my explicit permission. It may be something like a YouTube premium subscription that allows you to enjoy the platform without any advertisements. In fact, sometimes I wonder if a social media that is subscription-based would be the future, where everyone would be a verified user. Today probably LinkedIn is closest to this vision with its freemium model, but then it is just a professional network where people put their best foot forward to ensure their career growth.
Finally, there needs to be a consensus and clarity on revenue generated seamlessly across borders through advertisements or affiliate marketing. Google just announced a tax deduction on income generated anywhere in the world through users in the US. We can assume other countries would follow soon with taxation laws of their own. It may be the case of the internet connecting us and tax authorities keeping us disconnected.
Social media platforms are ever-evolving tools, and they would always have some unresolved issues. Their judicious use is in our hands.
The writer is an author and founder of blogging website IndiTales
She can be contacted at Twitter: @anuradhagoyal