Facebook’s Hundred-Dollar Test: How Much Would You Pay to Send a Message?

Published on January 11, 2013
by Mike Isaac

facebook_message_pricesForget the phone book. Facebook wants to be the online identity directory of the world.

But an online directory only works if its members can communicate freely. And for much of Facebook’s history, users have had hard-and-fast ways of keeping their profiles cordoned off from the world, shareable only with those deemed worthy of being a “friend.” That’s by design; people freak out at any hint of a privacy violation, so the more control people have over their visibility on the site, the better they feel about being on Facebook.

So, slowly, but ever so surely, the company needs to usher its users into a new way of existing within Facebook, one where communication is more fluid, defined differently than before. Say, for example, Facebook makes it so that all user Timelines are publicly searchable, so that anyone’s bare-bones profile can be found on the site. That’s the first tiny step in a larger initiative. After all, if you want to build a directory, you’ve got to put everyone’s names out there to see.

The second and more recent step goes beyond just the listing. It has to do with Facebook’s grand economic experiment with Messages, where Facebook will allow some users to send messages to others outside their friend network, provided that the sender pays a fee to do so.

Facebook_Messages_voiceThere are stipulations. First, only so many folks are involved in this test at the moment, and they’re only Stateside users. Second, there’s a cap — if you’re in the test group, you’ll only be able to receive one of these paid messages per week (if you get any at all). Third, and perhaps most importantly, Facebook is tweaking the price to see how users behave, billing it as an experiment “to test the usefulness of economic signals.”

Here’s the thing: Facebook can’t just let anyone send messages to anyone else. It’d be like a free-for-all for marketers and spammers, who could push their crap onto others willy-nilly without the barriers from before.

In other words, it’d be like handing out a directory of the social Internet to telemarketers and saying, “Have at it.” Consider the fee a roadblock for those spammers.

But as Mashable first noted on Thursday evening, Facebook is going further to test those price boundaries; a writer noticed that, for a $100 fee, a user could send a message to Mark Zuckerberg, the big man of Facebook himself.

Cute, yes. But the point of the exercise is less about who you’re able to send a message to, but just how much you’ll spend to send it. Indeed, Facebook’s response on this implied this to some extent: “We are testing some extreme price points to see what works to filter spam,” a company spokesman told me.

Facebook wouldn’t confirm or deny that Mark Zuckerberg was the only one of these extreme price points, but I doubt he is. My guess is that price elasticity is related to demand, with the cost of sending a message rising for the high-profile users who have bigger followings.

So, in essence, it’ll cost a heck of a lot less to send a message to me than it would to send one to Kobe.

zuckerberg1_t300Why do this, you may ask? In a way, these outliers — the celebrities with inordinately large followings — are the perfect markers to find the artificial price ceilings of the “market” for sending messages between users.

It’s valuable for Facebook to know and test our limits; how far would I go to reach out to someone I wanted to talk to, even if I didn’t know them personally? While Justin Bieber may have a massive fan base, I’d guess most of them wouldn’t shell out a C-note every time they wanted to send him a love note (though I admit, I may be underestimating “Bieber Fever”). Raise the price high enough, and you filter out all the chaff, while still letting the smallest amount of wheat through.

And the fewer messages folks receive — famous or no — the likelier they’ll be to respond. It’s easier for Bieber to drop a quick “Thanks!” to a fan when there’s only one love note in his inbox rather than one thousand of them.

Again, this is all a test, in the hope of fostering a growing level of intercommunication between users on the site, who wouldn’t be able to connect otherwise. Or, to extend my analogy further: Like any good phone book, the numbers are all out there. We just need to stick a quarter in the slot to make a call.

Where that analogy fails is where Facebook truly tests the boundaries of user privacy and patience. You can’t “unlist” your number; everyone is in the directory, everyone is searchable, everyone is just a Facebook message away. The price and message-cap barriers are the closest thing to keeping you out of touch in the directory.

But, like I said to begin with: Forget the phone book. Facebook wants to go bigger than that. It wants to map the world.

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