Yes, You Can Monetize Your Own Social Data—Here's How

Several entrepreneurs are attempting to give social network users new ways to make money from their thoughts, words—even their identity. Is this the future of the middle class?

There are two ways to make money on the web. You can buy and sell stuff—also known as "e-commerce," a la Amazon or eBay. Or you can sell ads—the chosen profit engine for Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Spotify, YouTube, BuzzFeed, Yelp, OKCupid, HowAboutWe, Tumblr, Yahoo, Netflix, and Hulu. For an individual person just trying to make some scratch, both these options are high-overhead with an exceptionally steep learning curve.

But there's something unfair here, according to entrepreneur Claudio Gandelman: The users who create and share much of the content that the latter sites advertise against—that is, the people that provide all the data for the targeted ads that make these sites so profitable—never make a dime. The Internet is the great disintermediator, says Gandelman, who formerly served as CEO of Match.com Latin America. And the next logical step is for the people to get paid.

A Penny For Your Thoughts—But Payable To Who?

Selling your personal, demographic, and activity data to marketers (and other third parties) has been commonplace on the web since the early 1990s. Gendelman's startup Teckler, which launched in May, works differently. On the surface it's a social media site for sharing and discovering text, audio, photos, or video (coming soon), much like any other Facebook clone. But unlike a normal social network, which sells ads and data and keeps the cash, Teckler splits all its data-derived revenue 70-30 with users, much like Apple's App Store vigorish.

"I think it’s pretty fair that if people create content they should receive something, even if they're not big," says Gandelman. "They are the proprietors, so it’s fair that they should receive something for what they create."

As a busy CEO, Gandelman says, he didn't have time to write and market a book or even to maintain a blog regularly, but he still had thoughts to share occasionally—and why shouldn't he be paid for them? If he posted on Twitter or Facebook, he'd never see a dime. And to earn a share of ad revenue through a network like BlogHer or a platform like YoTtube, you must be a power user with a certain established audience already—an audience that requires you to keep up a demanding schedule of content creation. Teckler is a way for the amateur to still get a cut of the proceeds from his or her own brain, but without all the individual overhead of a monetizable social site like Pheed.

Users Should Own Their Own Peep Shows

Teckler and Pheed aren't the only startups with variations on this model; in fact, the established personal data site Reputation.com has a more controversial idea. Founded as a way for people and businesses to scrub their online reputations, they've announced a new feature that will let users share selected tidbits of personal information-your income, or the make and model of your car—in exchange for perks, like discount offers or loyalty memberships. This kind of permission-based marketing has the potential to raise a lot of awareness about the data harvesting that companies are already doing, by asking them to pay for the peeking.

How A Personal-Data Industry Should Look

The emergence of these kinds of marketplaces was recently called for by no less a pundit than Jaron Lanier. His most recent book, Who Owns the Future?, laments the way that the information economy has destroyed the livelihoods of musicians, authors, and (through globalization and automation) essentially the whole middle class.

Lanier proposes a system of universal micropayments, something like what the Swedish company Flattr has been doing, allowing people to be rewarded for providing useful information either through self-expression or just in the course of daily interactions. As the jacket copy puts it, "It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web." That is, if users ever realize the true value of the assets they've sunk into Facebook and Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Dwayne Bent]

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  • Anthony Reardon

    Right on Anya,

    I think the spirit of this is empowering people to recognize how they are being used and manipulated for the profitability of others, and to reclaim that back for themselves. It's only fair that if someone is going to profit off your effort, that they are upfront about it, and that you get a cut. You might otherwise come to terms on benefit, but at least know the value of what you are giving away for free, and make sure whatever you do is really worth "your" while as a priority. It's just business.

    With that said, this is actually a huge can of worms, lol! First and foremost, I think you need to ask yourself why should you accept advertising on your content. Fast Company does this, but they are based on a magazine media advertising model- they actually do a pretty tasteful job of it. However, I see countless examples of social websites that exist for no other real reason than to profit from your traffic through advertisements. Even static sites. I can assure you that in most cases, the spirit behind that is simply to use you to make money. It's one thing to talk about making a more beautiful web together, but there are those that will tell you anything, when if you check them out carefully you can find they are not genuinely for anything other than making money off suckers. To them, it's just business too.

    Now you can put together a site and get paid to have ads, but you cheapen yourself by doing so. Other than media companies like FC, how many respectable companies allow ads on their own sites anyway? I've also seen this ad profit distribution model, and honestly it just comes across as another multi-level marketing, home-based business opportunity, get rich quick type scheme. I think it's more important to think about how those kinds of models cheapen the web and appeal to aspirations for using the internet to make money in a way that takes advantage of people.

    If you don't want to be a business, then maybe there is something to be said about getting paid for your data and participation in someone else's business model. However, if making money on the web is your goal, I think it better to develop an idea for products and services that people will want to pay you for, and to use the web for all the possibilities for branding, marketing, and connecting with people- the way companies with class do. While the cheaper models have enjoyed some popularity, I think it's something that people are growing tired of- and that matters more to increasingly sophisticated and critical web users.

    Best, Anthony