Hope everyone has had a good holiday! Did you buy gifts for people? Or receive them? From a pure economic efficiency perspective you shouldn’t spend a second on holiday shopping and just give those around you cold hard cash. After all, lump sum transfers are most efficient in redistributing wealth, and there’s no way you could know a recipients preferences better than they do. (Exceptions for parents who’ve received letters to Santa of course)

Unfortunately this is empirically very unpopular (in the US at least). As Greg Mankiw explains, it’s about signaling. Social interactions aren’t just about exchanges of economic value, they’re an intricate dance of signaling to others, posturing to others, projecting an image, fitting in with the cool crowd, and all manner of things a high-schooler would be embarrassed to admit to.

The content we consume becomes part of that intricate social game of posturing and positioning that we all play to navigate our social spheres. And luckily for content publishers, this all can be exploited.

Social Content

2009 may be remembered as the year that Facebook and Twitter topped the search engines in sites’ referrer logs. Increasingly, people are turning back to their friends and acquaintances to point them to accurate information, interesting news and entertainment. Search has become the victim of spam and gaming of algorithms, leading to online social spaces becoming a more reliable way of finding what is good online. Fred Wilson gives a clear summary.

For me, social has become the definitive content discovery mechanism. As this happens, content begins to look less and less like a commodity. In search engine land, content is ruthlessly and algorithmically ranked and rated in value and relevance. No one has a personal relationship with a search engine.

Information with social context becomes part of our relationships with other people. And no one is better at persuading us to do things we might otherwise not do than our friends.

For more evidence that social interactions destroy rational economic thinking, one need look no further than luxury goods that people consume and enjoy more simply because they are expensive and can signal to others that they are of high status. Demand for these goods actually rises as they become more expensive. Or take the vicissitudes of fashion, which require people to swap out their wardrobes on a continuous basis in order to convey their social status to others.


How to tap into this economic irrationality? Get people to consume goods in a social space that displays their consumption to others. People do this on the subway by holding open the covers of their magazine or book. People do it online by sharing links to their favorite sources and stories.

More specifically. Publishers could erect a paywall on a site that takes advantage of these social tendencies by giving paying subscribers the ability to share content by whisking their friends and followers past the paywall. With customized links, or a custom link shortening tool that meters the number who use the link it would be possible to set up multiple tiers of sharing and charge more to let someone share with more people.

This also lets people band together and buy subscriptions. It sounds bad for the bottom line, but in the economic literature, its been shown that allowing this kind of sharing, can actually improve profits for a content distributor. What causes this counter intuitive result? In a paper by Bakos, Brynjolfsson and Lichtman, they explain that this kind of social sharing works to aggregate widely distributed consumer valuations for content and present a more favorably shaped demand curve to the producer.

Content producers continue to struggle with monetizing their products online, and it looks increasingly unlikely that advertising will be the solution because content sites operate at the level of “intent generation” not “intent harvesting”. Perhaps by making the consumption of content more of a social experience, producers will have more success.