Is it worthwhile to pay for social media?

Alright, time for a confession – I’ve signed up for Elon Musk’s social platform X (formerly known as Twitter).

“Why are you giving money to the world’s wealthiest individual?” my friend exclaimed.

Granted, she had a point, but I had two reasons for doing so. Firstly, I had noticed a few fake accounts pretending to be me, so subscribing offered a form of verification.

Secondly, I wanted access to X’s AI chatbot, Grok, and subscribing was the easiest way to get it. I paid for it out of my own pocket – it wasn’t covered by the BBC.

The reputation of subscribers on X is quite varied; there’s an option to hide the “blue tick” that appears next to your name once you subscribe.

Some established users strongly dislike the idea of “buying your way in” – gaining extra visibility and profile by paying for it, rather than earning it through posting good content.

I didn’t anticipate much change in my own experience of using the platform. However, there have been improvements.

The obvious benefits include the ability to write longer posts and edit them – and I’ve appreciated the decrease in ads. On the flip side, now that I’m paying for the service with actual money, I get even more irritated by the spam and bots that plague it.

Johnny Ryan, a former advertising executive turned critic who now serves as a senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, suggests that advertisers are sometimes easier to please than subscribers.

“In general, advertisers don’t care much about the content,” he says. “Occasionally there’s a scandal, but generally they’re not that concerned.”

There’s an old saying, “If you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product” – meaning, if you’re using something for free, the company that owns it is monetizing your data by selling advertising space.

It’s a well-established and profitable business model. “Data is the new oil!” was a bold slogan frequently heard in the tech industry a few years ago.

But perhaps that data well is running dry, as tech companies are increasingly considering subscriptions as an alternative revenue stream.

Six months ago, Meta introduced an ad-free subscription model for Facebook and Instagram in Europe. It costs €13 ($14; £11) per month on mobile devices, which is about average for an online service fee. The tech giant declined to disclose how many people have signed up thus far.

This move was ostensibly to comply with new EU legislation regarding consumer choice. However, it has backfired: Meta now faces investigation because the EU Commission believes that the binary choice of either paying money OR surrendering data may not be sufficient.

Snapchat Plus, which includes an ad-free option that is still being rolled out, reached one million subscribers within just a few weeks of its launch in June 2022. And in 2023, YouTube’s premium service, offering ad-free streaming, attracted 100 million users.

“The hassle-free experience of simply enjoying content without worrying about ads is something I need in my life,” says James Hacking, founder of the media agency Socially Powerful, and a long-time YouTube subscriber.

Conversely, Netflix introduced a cheaper subscription option that includes ads, and Amazon Prime added ads to its video platform, now charging users (who are already subscribers) an extra fee to remove them.

Johnny Ryan argues that this hybrid model represents the worst of both worlds. It’s a “strange thing,” he says, to both see ads and pay a fee.

Subscriptions in general are “part of the transition from a new and growing market to a saturated one,” says Azeem Azhar, founder of the tech-themed subscription newsletter Exponential View. “There are no more new customers to acquire, so you have to find ways to increase revenue for your business.

“There is a segment of internet users willing to pay, just as there is a segment of airline passengers willing to pay to board more quickly.”

However, he warns that social networks in particular need to proceed with caution.

“If everyone has to pay, you’ll have far fewer users – resulting in less engagement, making it less desirable,” he adds. “There’s a balance between needing free users to share and create content, and those willing to pay for a slightly better experience.”

Perhaps this is a lesson X has already learned – within days of launching its subscription model, it granted free premium account status to all accounts with over a million followers, and later expanded this to include anyone with more than 2,500 premium followers.

Many news platforms have successfully transitioned to subscription funding. Numerous platforms are comfortably behind paywalls, particularly in Scandinavia – last year, the Reuters Institute reported that 33% of Swedes paid for online news.

Mr. Azhar has around 100,000 subscribers on Substack – a platform connecting creators with an audience. It’s free to publish on, and Substack takes a 10% commission on paid subscriptions, plus an additional 3% transaction fee for the payment system Stripe.

Substack claims that over three million people have subscribed to the various publications it hosts. Substack creators are not permitted to include ads.

“You have to be consistent – you have to keep showing up – creating a habit in your readers’ minds is important,” says SubStack founder Hamish McKenzie about the secret to a successful account.

“They will develop a relationship with you, and then you have to maintain their trust, which means respecting their attention – the opposite of the ad game – you have to be honest, don’t abuse their attention by bombarding them with a bunch of distracting stuff.”

Mr. McKenzie believes that one day there will be a “great rivalry” between social networks that offer one overall subscription for all content on them, and individual creator models like Substack.

“It’s a much better world when the audience is the customer rather than the product,” he says.