If Facebook charged for its service – would people pay?

Mark Zuckerberg prepared himself well for the congressional hearings into Facebook. On the first day he held his ground; providing slick answers that had clearly been polished and buffed by a team based at Facebook HQ.

But on the second day, his inquisitors started to get into their stride, became more belligerent and pressed harder. His responses started to look less slick.

Much obfuscation and not much enlightenment.some things did emerge from the discussions. The first is that Facebook has become a largely unmanageable company. Possibly even worse than the big banks. Zuckerberg clearly does not, and can not, know what is going on in every nook and cranny of the organisation.

Second, the Facebook site and the algorithms that drive the business seem to be developing a life of their own. As Facebook mushrooms and different teams add different features and different algorithms, things just seem to start to happen. It all felt a little bit like one of those sci-fi films where the machines (or computers) acquire their own will and capability and start eating the humans that created them.

The exponential increase in complexity means that what happens on Facebook is now largely uncontrollable. The idea that the company can reliably weed out fake news, online harassment or incitement to violence or pretty much anything else is for the birds. For all the AI tools, increase in compliance staff, and all else the whole thing is now too big and too quick to police effectively.

Neither, it seems to me, can Facebook possibly comply with evolving data protection regulations. When asked these sorts of probing questions, Zuckerberg had a standard response – “It’s a very complicated issue” (fortunately he refrained from adding “and you dumb politicians can’t ever hope to understand it.”)

But maybe most interesting was his response to the question as to why Facebook was not simply a paid for service rather than one that relies on the abuse of its customers’ data. Zuckerberg’s stock answer: “We have no plans to change our business model.” Nothing about the why.

So I did my own little unscientific and unrepresentative experiment. I spoke to a bunch of 15-16 year olds and asked them whether they would be willing to pay to maintain access to Facebook if it became a paid service. Some said yes; others no. When probed around how much they would be willing to pay, the responses clustered around 5 Euros a month.

So there’s the answer. People do not really put much value of Facebook. Use would probably plummet if payment became explicit rather than hidden and those who did pay would not yield nearly as much revenue as comes in from the abuse of people’s data.

Which begs the question – is Zuckerberg’s repeated assertion that Facebook’s mission is to connect people and in doing so it is providing a valuable service to humanity and to our societies true? Or is it a bunch of BS?

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


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