Free Your Twitter-Using Learners from the Car Boot? It Will Cost You

Posted on by Brooke

A novel and exciting business model seems to keep coming up a lot lately, one that educators using social media might keep an eye on. It's so "out there" that it might as well be fantasy or science fiction. In fact, here, I'll draw on an episode of the TV show Angel (spin-off from the better-known Buffy the Vampire Slayer) for an example; the scene is a classic ransom swap:

Italian Demon: "You give me the money, I give you the head."
(Angel and Spike stare at him blankly.)
Italian Demon: "You give me the money…I give you the head."
(Angel and Spike stare blankly.)
Italian Demon: "Money, head. Money, head."

What we expect, of course, is that the Italian Demon will make the head freely available to the protagonists, while accepting advertising revenue on the side. Naturally, the Italian Demon would then be free to negotiate with his advertisers concerning how the head might be festooned with banner ads; or whether Angel and Spike might be invited to choose their advertising experience before accepting the head (and their personal preferences sold as data to marketers). Since Angel and Spike are themselves paying nothing for the head, they are comfortably excluded from all decision-making concerning the transaction, and if they don't like the terms, they'll have plenty of friends to admonish them not to complain about free stuff.

But here, instead, Angel and Spike are paying directly for the head. By spending their own money, they become partners in the transaction, rather than passive recipients of whatever the Italian Demon and his actual partners (his advertisers) choose to deliver. (In fact, Angel and Spike will use this agency to decide to fight the Italian Demon instead of pay him, and the Italian Demon will give them a bomb on a short fuse instead of the head. But anyway.)

It's a powerful idea. Earlier this year, I moved this site from to Squarespace. I did this for a handful of reasons, but one of them is that, since I pay for the service, I get 24/7 living-person customer support. ("You give me the money, I give you the head.")

I wrote last week about some troubling developments at Twitter. As most of us know, Twitter's partners are not its users, but its advertisers: as Jason Lefkowitz has said (quoting Dave Winer), users aren't even riding in the backseat, they're locked in the trunk. Most users won't care much as "promoted Tweets" by BP and KFC take over their feeds, and as Twitter rubs out 3rd-party Twitter applications in order to provide users with a "consistent (i.e., Twitter-controlled) user experience." But it won't just be nerdy app developers that lose out: educators, for example, will likely lose the ability to use Twitter in ways that they choose (like with Storify), if their pedagogical choices don't match up with Twitter's (potentially ever-changing) "rules of the road."

A group of app developers have gone off and created a Twitter alternative, "app dot net." Users pay (currently $50/year) to keep the service working and growing, and so the proprieter's business is with the users, rather than with advertisers. Whereas Twitter is chopping off the development of 3rd-party applications, AppDotNet is largely inhabited by such developers. And here's my point: if as an educator, I want to see a certain kind of user-experience for my learners, then in principle, I can create the app I want or contract with a developer to create it for me.

"You give me the money, I give you the head." It's a powerful idea.

I do love getting free and cheap stuff on the web. I willingly sit through commercials on Hulu. I grudgingly hand over my personal consumer habits to Google. It's one way to do things. But it's not the only way. And for educators who have a stake in taking ownership of the "user experience" and, and in multiplying the possibilities for the learner's ability to experience and manipulate of web content, riding locked in the trunk is not always going to be the best way.

[Free Your Twitter-Using Learners from the Car Boot? It Will Cost You was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/08/20. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]