Will Facebook Be Free Forever?
If you’ve logged onto Facebook recently (and who hasn’t), you may have noticed a little promise front and center: “It’s free and always will be.” But many out there don’t seem to believe it – are they right? And, in general, should we believe any corporate promises?
If you’re skeptical about my claim that many people don’t believe Facebook’s promise, just look at the chain post that spread like wildfire a few days ago:
FACEBOOK JUST RELEASED THEIR PRICE GRID FOR MEMBERSHIP. $9.99 PER MONTH FOR GOLD MEMBER SERVICES, $6.99 PER MONTH FOR SILVER MEMBER SERVICES, $3.99 PER MONTH FOR BRONZE MEMBER SERVICES, FREE IF YOU COPY AND PASTE THIS MESSAGE…
That hoax wasn’t a stand-alone incident, either. According to Snopes.com, rumors of Facebook charging have flared up every few months since late 2009.
In response, the company has repeated their “It’s free and always will be” pledge, but to my eyes that promise is not as clear as one might think.
When Facebook says, “It’s free,” what exactly is “it”? Is “it” our personal profile, our status updates, our links to connections, our social games or one of the other million and a half services Facebook provides? When it comes to promises like this, it’s often future lawyers that will fight for meaning and with a word like “it,” Facebook has the advantage.
When you read Facebook’s terms and conditions, you’ll see a few indications that charging for services that we currently see as inherent is open to possibility. For example, mobile is “currently” provided for free.
What’s more, as we recently learned from Netflix, just because Facebook’s many services are under a single umbrella today doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, perhaps the new “Facegames” company will require a $2.99 monthly membership fee.
Now I’m not saying that Facebook will charge you. Spinning off Facebook gaming apps today would be like cutting off Facebook’s arm and then expecting it to take dictation. But if you imagine five, ten or twenty years down the road, you realize that Facebook may not be on top – may not even be in the running – and would need major cash to afford to store your long history of updates. Or maybe Facebook will be public and thereby subject to the collective greed of anonymous shareholders.
If you’re skeptical, then I’m sorry to say that you’re also naïve. In The Art of the Steal, Albert Barnes’ seemingly ironclad will is eroded slowly as its board creates excuse after excuse to violate nearly every clause. What’s more, as we’ve witnessed during the financial crisis, the government is very willing to forgive transgressions much more extreme than a small promise like Facebook’s.
So now that I’ve convinced you that Facebook could start charging, let me throw out a new argument. From a business perspective, Facebook won’t charge the average user – not now and not for a long time.
Whether that original promise was made out of ignorance and chutzpah or business savvy, I’ll never know, but what’s clear is that charging users would not only mean bad PR and bad mojo, but it would also mean the loss of millions of users and an open door for Facebook’s competition. Your personal data and traffic are Facebook’s top assets, so to put those in jeopardy would be a colossal mistake.
But before you start cheering, let me add that getting charged by a website like Facebook isn’t necessarily a negative. Currently Facebook’s priorities are split between creating an optimal user experience and improving their revenue opportunities. Better targeting for display ads is better for Facebook and kind of better for you, but like the new Timeline user interface is good for you. Now imagine a future where Facebook is primarily a paid service. In that future, a larger percentage of the company’s focus would be devoted to keeping users, which would mean constant innovation and improvement to the user experience.
In the end, I’m skeptical whether Facebook’s pledge and others like it are beneficial or whether they even matter at all.
On the one hand, I commend Facebook for making the kind of vow users dream of but rarely receive. On the other hand, many users either don’t remember it or don’t believe it. Like so many others who have been burned by corporations again and again in the name of profit, I’m skeptical and am ultimately only convinced that Facebook will hold true to its word because it’s word is in the company’s long-term best interest.
Do you think Facebook will charge one day? Let me know in the comments!
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