Much has been made of the fact that a new Facebook test is charging £10.68 to send a message to diver Tom Daley (if you are not already a friend of his on the network, that is.) If you want to send a message to somebody you just don’t know, but who is not a celebrity, it will cost you 71p. Others in your so-called social circle - friends of your friends - can still be contacted for free.
One in ten UK users of the social network are being given the chance to trial the new service, called Priority Messages. Those who continue to send messages to people they do not know - but who choose not to pay for the privilege - will only reach a “less visible” inbox.
The intelligence behind the service is a black box algorithm that calculates the value of each user to determine the charge for contacting them. It is likely to be a variation of the Q Score developed by Marketing Evaluations in the US which measures the appeal of brands, celebrities and athletes among people familiar with them, but with a hard pounds and pence value attached.
Facebook has to find new ways to make money from its social network and appears to have recognised that data-driven solutions will deliver more money. Just charging advertisers for pumping out commercial content would make it little more than a media owner, rather than an innovative technology business.
What is notable about this test, however, is the way it alters the value exchange. Facebook’s growth has been driven by offering two things which users want without charging for them: the ability to link to friends with little effort and the opportunity to follow high-profile individuals.
Maintaining friendships in the physical world requires effort and tends to limit the size of your social circle. According to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, social groups tend to have a mean size of 148 members. Beyond that it becomes challenging to hold onto a stable relationship.
Facebook removes much of the effort required and has allowed users to build much larger networks by connecting with people they have never met. (Paradoxically, the average number of friends within these social groups is still 140, providing real proof of the validity of Dunbar’s number.)
Since the social network does not charge for these services, users have been happy to accept a degree of intrusion by advertisers. For those who become well-known through their work (athletes, broadcasters) or genuinely famous (films stars, musicians), that intrusion is added to by streams of messages from followers. Being exposed to that clutter reduces the utility to such stars of being on Facebook, yet the network is keen to retain their involvement as it adds sizzle to the service.
So Priority Messages is testing just how much noisy extroverts want to pay to pester people they do not know. You could argue this is little different to paying for stamp to send fan mail. But it comes with the implication that your message to Daley will somehow claim his direct attention, rather than being filtered out by his “people”.
That is a difficult trick to pull-off. Indeed, Facebook has already tried it once in the US, where contacting its own founder Mark Zuckerberg (among others) was available at a premium of $100. That trial was quietly dropped. UK consumers tend to be more reticent, even when in the throes of fandom.
What Facebook might end up proving is the quality of its social network analytics - defining a monetary value for each individual in the network - rather than the willingness of users to pay for certain types of contact. Ultimately, that could prove to be of much higher value.