This is the Modem World: The internet may be killing cash

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|03.20.13

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This is the Modem World: The internet may be killing cash

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

We worship money. It can be exchanged for life-sustaining stuff, makes us powerful and drives us to make new things. It also drives us to do some very strange stuff, but that's a subject for another day and place. You may not bow to the altar of the dollar, but you certainly recognize the need to have some in order to survive.

While we adore money as a society, its time may be limited as a currency, and the internet may be to blame. Money wasn't always king. Before we traded cash, we exchanged gold, cows, clamshells, rice, copper, tea leaves and even bat guano. At some point in those currencies' lives, people determined that there were other things worth more and moved on to trade those.

Today, denizens of the internet are increasingly hoarding other currencies. We -- or at least some of us -- obsess over a whole new kind of currency that, in some cases, doesn't even translate to real-world money.

On social networking sites, one is measured by how many friends, connections and followers he has. To those who care, possessing many online friends makes one appear popular, powerful and interesting.

On Twitter, having a large following means that what you have to say is very important -- or you're really hot. Or you paid someone to get you followers. In any case, Twitter followers, as a number, has become an incredibly important number. It's abstract, and we're still not sure what to do with it, but we care. We feel good when we see "You have new followers!" emails, and we feel empty when we see that people have un-followed us. We're impressed when we see people with millions of followers. Entire industries have formed just to create Twitter momentum for celebrities and businesses. Followers are bought and sold with real money. For better or worse, we care. And if you're one of the few who doesn't care, there are plenty behind you who do.

On user-generated sites like YouTube, one is measured by how many subscribers he has. YouTube stars are crossing over into mainstream because they've become internet famous. In 2010, Fred, a YouTube vlogger who pitches up his voice and does silly things that half of us can't quite figure out, was given a Nickelodeon movie deal. Meanwhile, view counts for music videos are now included in Billboard's metrics. YouTube's viewership, according to Wired, now exceeds that of ABC, NBC and CBS combined during prime time. New businesses designed to just create content for YouTube and create subscriptions are going through impressive rounds of funding.

Meanwhile, in modern communities like Reddit and Digg, one is measured by his social karma, or how many times his comments have been up-voted. In short, one is measured by how much he has contributed. Reddit has become so important in online social currency that Bill Gates, Al Gore and many others have done special AMAs (Ask me Anything) as a measure of community contact. Society's current power-holders are already recognizing how important it is to participate in these new social networks. The success of these small campaigns is measured not by how much money they make but by how far the AMA has been up-voted. Get your client's AMA to the front page and you've done your job, cash or none.

Sure, all of these things ultimately translate to business plans that turn into real, hard cash. After all, humans still need to buy food and shelter. But this is the first time we've quantified -- and measured -- social worth via followers, friends and subscriptions. These things are real currency: they get you more stuff, and sometimes they're the most efficient way to get yourself some moolah.

But are they powerful enough to usurp cash-money as the be-all currency that moves modern society? Will there be a point in which someone will say to another, "Keep the cash. Get me more followers"? Will we one day be able to buy things with something other than dollars and yen?

Certainly barter deals are made now that involve traffic exchanges, social networking pickups and the like, but they're usually ultimately tied to page views and ad revenue that become real money. At some point, though, we may determine that those extra followers are enough currency in that they give us the ability to exchange that online social pull for other services.

It's not a completely crazy concept. After all, we've moved past bat guano. Certainly we could move past cash. In many ways we already have, and the more we apply numbers to our online social success, the more we'll value it.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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