A few weeks ago, thanks to a recommendation from my colleague and friend Josh Rosenberg, I was contacted by Alyson Klein at EducationWeek to talk about the “Gas” social media app that’s become popular among high schoolers lately. Klein’s article was published last night, and I was happy to see that I’d been quoted in the article.
To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with the app before Klein reached out, but it only took a few minutes of research for me to figure out that I didn’t like it very much. According to the website, Gas is:
an app to compliment your friends.
This works by having users complete surveys, which begin with a complimentary prompt (e.g., “who makes you laugh until you cry?”) and follow up with a list of fellow users with whom one is connected through the app. When you select one of your contacts for the survey, they get a notification letting them know that someone has selected them in response to that particular prompt. However, the notification doesn’t let them know who has selected them—unless they pay for God Mode, a $6.99/week subscription that lets you see “the first letter of someone who voted for you” throughout the week and “the full name of someone who voted for you twice” during the week.
Over the past few years, I’ve practiced applying a “platform perspective” (as laid out by José Van DIjck and others) to understanding social media, and what stood out immediately about Gas is this business model. Klein summarizes my thoughts in this part of the article:
But Greenhalgh has some serious concerns about the app’s business model, whose revenue seems to come largely from a paid, premium version. Users can pony up $6.99 a week to get extras, including hints about who is voting for them in polls, such as the first letter of a name, according to the Common Sense review.
Essentially, “the way they are making money is by charging some kids access to data that other kids have generated,” Greenhalgh said.
Users can find out for free that, for instance, a sophomore boy voted them as “most likely to make my heart skip a beat.”
“That makes you feel good,” Greenhalgh said. “But at that point, you kind of want to know who it is. Right? It feels a little exploitative to me. … They know teenagers are insecure and they want to know what their friends think about them.”
The price of the premium version is “a lot of money,” particularly for high schoolers. While he typically counsels his college students that paid, private apps are preferable to free platforms that sell user data, Gas “seems to push the boundaries of the assumptions that I make when I give advice like that.”
Klein includes an alternate take on all this from one of the app’s founders right after this passage, repeating some of the same talking points that they include on their website: anonymous is more fun, this business model better respects privacy, etc. There’s some truth to all of this, but I’m not won over.
Whatever the app website says about the value of anonymity, the marketing of the app and the business model clearly rely on pushing kids toward finding the extra money to find out who voted for them. The very name of the LLC behind the app is Find Your Crush, and to me, that indicates the intended purpose of the app more than any PR-speak about positivity, compliments, and feeling comfortable in anonymity. The company may genuinely be taking efforts to make sure that kids can enjoy the app without having to pay, but for their company to be solvent, they can’t possibly allow a fully anonymous experience to be satisfying for the app’s users. There’s an inherent tension there, and I think the company’s bottom line will ultimately win out.
What’s further striking about this is how clearly this business model relies on digital labor from youth. When users do pay for God Mode, they are not (really) paying for additional features or functionality provided by Gas itself. Instead, they are paying for access to data that is produced by other users. This is pretty audacious as far as social media business models go. Users create the data, users pay for the data, and the app company pockets all the money while adding relatively little value to the transaction.
Just writing about this is winding me up all over again.
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