Paying to be

I listened yesterday to an interesting episode of Melog, the radio programme hosted by Gianluca Nicoletti on Radio24.

You can find the podcast here (in Italian)

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The episode focused on the meaning and implications of Meta\’s decision to charge a monthly fee for the blue badge on Facebook and Instagram. Meta has followed a similar announcement made by Elon Musk for Twitter.

Nicoletti\’s program features in-studio guests and calls from listeners. The guest of yesterday\’s episode was Paolo Benanti, a Franciscan father who researches neuroethics, technology ethics, artificial intelligence and who is a lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University

I was struck by one of the points they made: their description of the evolution of social media during the last 30 years.

First, the decade from 2000 to 2010 which started with the Y2K millennium bug and ended with the Arab Spring. Those ten years, they have carried the promise that the power of new digital spaces could reduce inequalities and bring democracy across the world.

Second, the decade between 2010 and 2021 started with the public offering of Facebook and ended with Capitol Hill and January 6th 2021. Facebook gets into the stock exchange and transforms itself from an open digital space for connecting with others and building a new form of social capital into a corporation able to make an immense amount of money thanks to an algorithm that has slowly closed us into filter bubbles and echo chambers. The decade ended with the assault on Capitol Hill and social media inundated and transformed by fake news, conspiracy theories, hatred and the collapse of social trust.

The third decade has just started. The algorithm that monitors and guides our preferences is still there, but we now have a new possibility: to pay for a blue badge and the privilege to be part of a particular group of people. There will be social media and internet that, if we pay, will be safe and protected and the internet and social media for everyone else.

We have come full circle. The inequality social media promised to break at the beginning of the century is now built into them with a monthly fee and resembles the inequality in the society. Paying for the blue badge will give status—the sense of belonging to a privileged social group. We have those who can afford the badge (a few) and those who cannot (the majority). Those paying will be paying to be.

Fascinating episode. Definitely worth listening if you can understand Italian.

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