I hope that the rumors of Facebook allowing users to sponsor their own posts to make sure they are seen within their networks turns out to be true, not because I think it’s a good thing for the ecosystem, but on the contrary because it might finally allow me to leave Facebook.
It makes sense for Facebook to be exploring this route. The biggest assets they have are their users and their users’ data. They’re already selling the data, and continuing to look for more and more ways to entice brands and others to pay for it and the subsequent access to their users. But they have yet to truly monetize the users themselves. Games and virtual currency have been used with some modicum of success, but creating a system where the hundreds of millions of active users pay even small amounts of money on a regular basis would be one hell of a long tail to apply to their balance sheets.
The way something like this might work is to extend a simplified version of Facebook ads to individual users. A responsible usage might be something like a user creating an event to support a local organization and wanting to make sure that his friends in the area (and their friends) see the posts about it. Even a small amount of money – a few dollars – would help to ensure that these updates get a small boost and get some eyeballs on them. However, let’s also consider a less responsible usage, one that is unfortunately not hard to imagine given current trends in social media usage. A completely narcissistic and uninteresting acquaintance spends money to put their uninteresting and narcissistic content into your feed repeatedly. Presumably Facebook would use metrics to weight this kind of content’s pricing up over time if it performs abysmally, but it’s still not an appetizing thought.
The ecosystem could slowly transform into a pay-to-play market where the flow of data through my networks is being overloaded not just by quantity (as it is now), but also by sponsorships, which make it hard for anything I post of good quality to gain traction against the sponsored content, which may truly be of lesser quality. Now, instead of being the place where friends share information about one another it becomes more of a classified situation where it costs you money to stay in front of your networks effectively.
The middle ground interpretation of how this might impact Facebook usage would be to consider that it all depends on your networks. If you have lots of friends who will behave in this way then you will be subjected to this new reality. If you have smaller tighter friend networks than it may affect your communication pattens to a much lesser degree.
An upside to all of this is that a move in that direction may truly lead to a search for a viable alternative like Path, Google+ or something still as of yet unseen. A majority will not immediately abandon Facebook because of a change like this, but a large enough minority may be incentivized enough to get the ball rolling in a significant way that has not been seen since the exodus from MySpace.
Google would love nothing more than for Facebook to alienate its users. Facebook, large and revenue hungry as they may be while moving toward their IPO, is probably still not blind enough to implement something disastrous, but if it is truly investigating this direction, and if it’s not careful, this could be a mis-step with long term consequences. Somebody make the popcorn – this might be fun to watch!