June 8, 2009

String Up the Velvet Ropes! Why Social Networks Need Barriers

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder & Fusion Director, Atomic Tango LLC

L.A. contains miles of velvet ropes that pack more protective power than the Great Wall of China. They’re fronted by large scowling men armed with high-caliber clipboards. And they’re assaulted nightly by swarms of wannabes, who are then repelled by blatant acts of discrimination based strictly on looks…

Fun stuff, huh? The movie Knocked Up brilliantly depicts one such scene — with an unexpected twist (warning: extreme adult language ahead):

Whenever I spot one of these social maladies in effect, my nerd self-preservation instinct kicks in, and I automatically steer clear. I’d sooner go bird hunting with Dick Cheney then submit myself to the velvet-rope treatment.

But what I disdain in real life is something I entirely endorse online: the social networks need to start guarding their entries.

The Web 2.0 services have been entirely about growth, growth, and while you’re at it, how about a little more growth? While this led to reams of publicity and ridiculous valuations, it also resulted in massive costs in servers and customer service.

Even worse, the sheer size and reach of these networks attracts slithering armies of spammers, scammers and mindless brain-eating MLM morons. You know, the kind of human detritus who would ruin any party scene, and who should be kept out on the sidewalk — preferably beyond smelling distance.

If you’ve spent any serious time on Facebook and Twitter, you know what I’m talking about.

Facebook and Twitter Get Spam-n-Scam Slammed

Facebook once limited its membership to Harvard students only. Then they extended to alumni. Then to anyone with a .edu address. And then, what the hell, to everyone with a pulse. That was commendably magnanimous and admirably egalitarian. Or maybe just wickedly greedy. Either way, at that moment, the spam onslaught began.

I used to belong to a number of business groups on Facebook, but the wall-postings and discussions devolved into get-rich-quick hype-a-thons. Some group admins quickly delete such tripe, but most Facebook business groups consist of nothing but posts like this:

“I’ve got a school project that’s a survey about my cousin in Nigeria who needs help getting all the money he made on Forex out of his country and needs you to visit his website because once he reaches 1,000,000 members he can give you a special cash advance at extremely low rates that you can use to work at home for just 3 hours a day finding special deals on foreclosed properties that can be purchased using federal stimulus bailout checks and sold to new immigrants looking for fresh network-marketing opportunities and the best part is that it’s all entirely free free free 2.0! What do you say?”

The spammers and scammers are now figuring out Twitter. Users logging onto their accounts see that they’ve attracted followers overnight. “Woohoo! I’m popular!” Unfortunately, the boost to their ego quickly deflates after they discover that some of these “followers” are just hucksters — and possibly not even human.

Add the sponsored tweets (#spon) and commercial marketers like Dell and Zappos, and you’ve got a lot of Twitterers selling, not socializing. Beyond irritating legit users, these self-promoters increase the burden on the servers and cause potential investors to question the network’s true number of “members.”

The solution? Pull out your clipboards — it’s doorman time.

No, I’m not saying social networks should discriminate on the basis of physical appearance. Let’s leave that to the trendy clubs and right-wing radio hosts.

The solution is simpler and less controversial: Facebook and Twitter are businesses, so they should discriminate on the value of a potential customer. How will they determine that value? Easy: by asking users to pay to join.

GASP! Did I just blaspheme the fundamental basis of all Web 2.0 companies? Absolutely. After all, the “free” model has proven to be a disaster for most of these startups. (See my post, “Free” Market Freefall: The End of Free?)

I’m also not suggesting an exorbitant amount. Perhaps $10-$20 a year — about the price of a magazine subscription. If that still sounds prohibitive, the company could then rebate some or all of that payment in the form of a gift certificate to a promotional partner, like Amazon. (Facebook could eventually offer credit on its payment platform for app developers.)

That should deter many of the spammers and scammers from opening multiple accounts. Sure, some would still cough up the cash for the opportunity to waste everyone’s time, but their numbers would be greatly reduced, and the social network could then use the income to better police itself.

Will a membership fee scare off some legitimate users? No doubt. But these social networks are already so massive, they could afford a little thinning of the herd. It would also alleviate the burden on their servers while generating revenue. The remaining membership would be more attractive to advertisers because — OMG! — these people actually have money and are willing to spend it.

Finally, there’s one other reason I think screening users is a good idea:

It’s already happening.

Twitter is now offering Verified Accounts to celebrities and politicians, who are being impersonated by con artists and pranksters.  If that works, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that service extended to all potential members — for a fee.

Not for cheep-skates?

Not for cheep-skates?

Another company is offering paid-subscription Twitter streams under the name Super Chirp. That’s right: you want exclusive tweets of your favorite celebrity or investment guru? It will cost you. On the plus side, subscribers will know they’re getting the real deal (or at least the real deal’s authorized ghost tweeter). And celebrities will know that their followers are not spambots or scam artists too cheap to pay a fee.

I envision more exclusive social networks popping up, where users can friend and follow others in a select market segment only. For example, picture a women-only network, or one just for doctors. While we all hate to be discriminated against, many of us also like being admitted to select company, whether it’s a trendy club, a prestigious university, or the Supreme Court.

Being part of a mass egalitarian movement where everyone gets along sounds great at first… until the skeezy guy next to you says, pssst, buddy, how’d you like some hamster porn and an investment opportunity that will make you millions working from home? At that point, you’ll wish you had a doorman, or at least a really big and potentially lethal clipboard.

Update 6/11/9: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is also fed up with the riff raff on Twitter, including “the new accounts that pop up daily on Twitter spewing [garbage], usually from picture-less creatively named profiles…” Indeed, Reznor is so fed up that he’s deleted his Twitter account. Welcome, Trent, to the company of qwitters!

Update 7/24/9: Twitter just did a purge of spammers from its ranks — and some legit users are upset! According to TechCrunch, “What is alarming, however, is that some people affected are complaining that not only did their follower count drop, but that all of their followers and people they followed were wiped out.” I wouldn’t call that alarming — I’d call that hilarious. Oh, how the mighty egos have fallen. That’s like some club goer thinking he’s popular until the club kicks out all the drug dealers and prostitutes, leaving that guy standing alone.

Related Article: Mob Rules: The Legend of How Web 2.0 got 2.Owned

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Shameless plug: Need help taking your startup to the next level? Contact Atomic Tango

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

2 Responses

  1. “…mindless brain-eating MLM morons.” Couldn’t have said it better!

  2. Have you seen Ning.com? They’ve got a pretty sweet system, they let you build your own social network and of course you can also be the bouncer if you want. You could do as a couple of local groups are doing and focus on local members or you could be a Drs only group etc, the options are limitless and costs are minor (and only if you want things like your own domain) I think we will see a lot more of this as twitter & facebook become more and more prone to spam. I hate to check my email anymore, feels like a waste of time and I get so much spam but some of these networks I really enjoy because I know that more of the posts will have value!

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