Facebook is having a Red Barn moment. If you ever played Farmville you’ll know what I mean. Farmville was fun for the first little while, planting, pulling in friends to pet your cows or whatever they were doing. Then at some point you realize the game has a limit beyond which you need to pay to do better. You can’t get the red barn unless you put down some actual real world dollars. It’s a great way to make money if people like your game enough but it breaks your whole idea of what the game is, that if you play better you will do better than others.
Of course, Facebook isn’t a game, right? Facebook is an ongoing, cacophonous discussion of the things going on in our lives amongst friends. On the sides of that discussion we have grown to accept that there are targeted advertisements trying to grab our attention. Increasingly, these advertisements are even within the stream of updates itself. But these ads are marked as promoted and they are easily identifiable as such. We can click on them or choose to ignore them.
Well, apparently now Facebook wants to turn itself into a kind of game, and just like Farmville you’ll need to pay to play well at it.
Facebook just rolled out their ‘promote’ feature to everyone. It was already available to Pages and brands but the way it is implemented now is kind of strange. Up until now, a Page which you follow (sorry, _subscribe to_, in Facebookese) could pay for their status updates, marked as “Sponsored”, to rise higher in your feed. But now anyone can sponsor updates. So if a politically active acquaintance that you added to Facebook has some extra cash they can ‘promote’ posts from their favourite political party or their own personal status updates with links to news articles. Any updates at all can be promoted.
Is this what we want? The power of the market is great and all but this is weird. What Facebook is doing with this one change is changing the very nature of their Social Network.
Last week Facebook was a place where you chatted with friends and tried to ignore adds coming from corporations, charities and political parties. Today it is a place where the very conversations you hear are influenced by money put up by normal people you follow in order to be heard above the clamour. Do we really want to monetize conversation to the extent where it becomes normal to be expected to chip in a bit of cash to get our voices heard? Shouldn’t our thoughts rise up to prominence because many people find them compelling rather than because we have extra money to spend on having people hear us on Facebook?
The more I think about it the more disturbing this is. This is a subtle conversion of the entire meaning of what a personal Facebook update is. It’s like that moment in Star Wars I where Qui Gon Jinn mentions midi-chlorians. It has no connection to anything else that came before and actually changes the entire meaning of the story. Is the Force a benevolent, mystical energy permeating the universe or is just it a physical field extruded by parasites inside us? Now, every time we see updates from someone we don’t talk to so often we’re going to look closer to see if they chose to ‘sponsor’ the update. What will it mean if someone does that? How will I judge them?
We’ll see how this plays out, maybe people won’t use it. But if I start seeing a lot of this I mark start marking all of it as spam.