Bringing Detroit Online: How New Social Network Tsu Could Help Close the Digital Gap

The Detroit Water Brigade's profile page on new social network Tsu.
The Detroit Water Brigade’s profile page on new social network Tsu.

Last week on a visit to New York City, I met a polite, unassuming young man who has a plan that could bring down Facebook. His name is Sebastian Sobczak, and he’s the founder of Tsū, a new social network that shares 90% of ad revenues with its users. In only its first three months of life, it has grown to over three million members worldwide. And it’s growing fast.

Sebastian and I sat down in his SoHo office and spoke for over two hours, where I drilled him intensely about everything from his politics to Tsū’s business model. The basics of it are simple: users sign up to join Tsū through existing users, who get small referral fees for bringing their friends onto the network. Then, every user gets ad royalties when their original content brings other users to see ads that appear in the margins of their feeds. It’s common sense: what brings people to a social network are other people, and they should be compensated when companies make money advertising on that network. It’s a kind of worker ownership for the Facebook factory.

But how does Tsū make money to keep the network going? They are actually a payment-processing company, Evacuation Complete, so their money comes from their 10% cut of ad revenues, and eventually a 3% payment-processing fee on all transactions on the site. (Right now, nobody hooks up their banks or credit cards to the site and all transactions are in digital “dollars” that get transferred around on the site. When your royalty payments exceed $100, you can request a check that is mailed to you.)

While social network ad revenue sharing is revolutionary in-and-of-itself – Facebook generated $5.1 billion in revenue in 2012 but still charges its users to share content beyond Facebook’s throttling limit – my ears perked when I heard from Sebastian what many Tsū users were doing with the money they earned using social media: donating it back to causes that had set up pages on the site. Charity Water, a non-profit that serves international water-scarce communities, has built 3 much-needed water wells in Ethiopia with the revenues and generations they’ve generated on Tsū alone. My mind immediately turned to Detroit, where disastrous shutoff policies have created first-world water scarcity. Could Tsū help Detroit get the water back on?

Here’s the thing: a full forty-percent of Detroiters lack Internet access at home, neither through a computer nor a smartphone. Even if they wanted to start making money from social media, they wouldn’t have the tools to do it. But what if Tsū itself could change that, by making Internet usage a net income rather than an expense for Detroiters? Like ad-sponsored free Internet in airports or train stations, Detroit could partner with Tsū to provide Wide-Area Network (WAN) Internet access to Detroiters subsidized by their social media browsing. Plus, the e-commerce generated by this expanded access would bring revenue to Tsū’s payment processing company as well as lower costs for Detroiters by opening them up to new markets that don’t price-gouge them.

It’s already happening. My organization, the Detroit Water Brigade, opened an account on Tsū last week and we’re already earning ad royalties and receiving donations. (Sign up at this link and you’ll be supporting us just by joining, plus we’ll shout you out!) Many of our international fans have joined the network and donated their ad revenues to us, and we use that money to deliver emergency water and winter essentials to Detroiters in need. We’re already dreaming of signing up families to stay connected with us through Tsū, where they can share their stories and seek out, or give, financial support through our growing network.

Could Tsū be the key to bringing equity and ownership to social media, and in doing so broaden the economic prosperity generated by our digital labor? I don’t know yet, but Detroit could be a good test run.