[More from Mashable: Love or Hate Facebook’s New Personal Promoted Posts?]
“A rumor on the Internet caught our attention. We have no plans to charge for Facebook. It’s free and always will be.”
[More from Mashable: Want to Highlight Your New Facebook Pictures? Pay to Promote Them]
That was Facebook's official response to a viral hoax spreading across the network in September 2011. It alleged that Facebook would start charging users money to use its new profile, and status messages abounded with this false information.
Industry experts (Mashable writers included) poo-pooed such a rumor. Charging people to use Facebook is the antithesis of what makes social media (and the web at large) so powerful and promising. The platforms and content are free because their proprietors make money from advertising. Everybody gets an equal voice on social, and brands can pay to make their voices louder if they so choose.
That's why today's announcement that Facebook will allow users to pay $7 to make their posts more visible in friends' News Feeds is a new low in the network's accelerating user experience implosion. Here's why.
Promoted posts are not new. People can buy trending topics on Twitter and users can pin Tumblr posts to the tops of followers' dashboards for $5. Even Facebook's promoted posts for brands make a ton of sense for marketers.
That's because these are ways for content creators to insert themselves prominently into a known social quantity -- that is, a chronological feed of updates. Everyone's updates are seen, but you can pay to make your update more visible.
The reason Facebook's promoted user posts are an affront is because the average user's News Feed is not chronological. It is determined by an algorithm called EdgeRank, which selects things that are, theoretically, most relevant to you.
That's all well and good for Facebook -- from what we've read and seen, it drives more engagement and clicks than a chronological feed. But what ends up happening is that Facebook users see the same people every time they log in. It creates what Eli Pariser calls "the filter bubble" -- a social world limited only to those people whom you "like," interact with, and probably agree with.
We can debate the filter bubble's effects on digital literacy and media consumption later. What really stings is that Facebook is now abusing the myopia it created. Essentially, the network is "hiding" your updates from friends, and then turning around to say, "Hey, if you want friends to see your updates, you could pay us!"
It's what economists call artificial scarcity: rigging the supply of something to create inflated demand. Facebook status updates are free for everyone to post and consume. But when EdgeRank makes them scarce for some people and not for others, it creates an artificial market for visibility. Facebook is rigging the game and then asking users to pay to level the playing field.
Facebook Is Suddenly "Freemium"
Zynga, Facebook's top bedfellow, is the reigning champ of the freemium model. It's free to play CityVille -- anyone can join the fun! But if you really want to get ahead of your friends and competitors, you can pay real money for in-game upgrades and advantages.
There's a lot of debate about whether freemium ruins social games. But at the end of the day, we're talking about virtual crops. Facebook is about communication. And while using Facebook is certainly not an inalienable right, it is the 900-million-strong default communication platform for much of the developed world. Using a freemium model here is not only socially irresponsible, but I believe it will be bad for Facebook's business in the long run.
Chronological Sorting - Facebook's Hidden Feature
The truly maddening thing here is that you can make EdgeRank go away. A tiny text link at the top of your News Feed allows you to sort updates by "Top Stories" or "Most Recent."
If you want to see everything that your Facebook friends and brand pages have posted in chronological order, you always have the option.
Facebook doesn't call much attention to this wonderful feature because it makes promoted posts less valuable. If everything is visible in chronological order, why would I pay for an algorithm to put me first?
Again, I see nothing wrong with purchasing a promoted post if that means it's pushed to the top of the feed in a very transparent manner -- the way Google ads appear at the top of search results, or promoted posts appear at the top of the Tumblr dash. That's advertising -- a way for brands to cut through the noise of the web and deliver a paid message. Facebook's move is more like pay-to-play radio. It already controls the noise, and makes you pay on top of it. That's editorially unsound.
I would guess the vast majority of Facebook users don't sort their News Feeds chronologically -- it is not the default, and you have to constantly turn it back on every few times you log on. Don't be shocked if this feature completely disappears. If Facebook's business model continues to hinge on pay-to-play social media, it would become an increasing liability.
Bad for Users, Bad for Business
We've known for some time that Facebook is no longer about engendering its community and connecting people. It's about controlling the flow of information and selling it (and its users) to the highest bidder.
I take no issue with creative, and even intrusive forms of advertising (using people's "likes" to promote brands to socially relevant consumers). The very notion of the Social Graph, the data brain that makes Facebook so valuable, is absolutely genius and should be leveraged by marketers to make brand messaging more efficient. Facebook is a free service, and we pay the price of privacy to use it.
But to rig the social conversation and then ask people to buy their way back in? That's a terrible user experience decision, and it will hurt Facebook in the long run. Power users will see the philosophical flaws here, and average users will be miffed that their wedding photos are invisible to old high school chums unless they pony up the cash.
This story originally published on Mashable here.