When I played poker in high school, we’d always tell the loser to stop whining. We’d say: “You played; you pay.” Pretty simple. And that applies to Facebook and its nearly one billion users: We’ve played, and now they want us to pay.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the thousands of people who raised a stink about Instagram’s apparent intention to use uploaded photos as ads without permission are whiners. They had a legitimate beef. What I am saying is this: Data, be it your shopping preferences, your reading habits or, in this case, your photos, are the coin of the digital realm. And Facebook (not to mention other advertising-driven services) expects you to hand it over.
As you probably noticed, Facebook has backed off on the new Instagram terms of service. Sure, that’s a good thing, but what I’ve noticed over the years covering the tech business is that Facebook never quits. It does something invasive, gets caught, apologizes and then does something equally obnoxious soon after.
“Today we’re starting a small experiment to test the usefulness of economic signals to determine relevance. This test will give a small number of people the option to pay to have a message routed to the ‘Inbox’ rather than the ‘Other’ folder of a recipient that they are not connected with.”
Let’s be real clear about this. Who wants to send a message to someone they don’t know on Facebook? Duh. Advertisers, of course. That’s not exactly what Facebook said, but that’s certainly what it means. For now, Facebook says it will limit the number of “paid messages” a user gets to one a week. Let’s see what happens when those “economic signals” prove their worth.
The feature, the company says, is limited to person-to-person messages, meaning that Facebook business pages and accounts are not able to use this service. Uh-huh. Let’s see how that works. Rather than getting a message from say, Chevron, you’ll get a message from your good buddy John Watson, who just happens to be the CEO.
Getting unwanted ads isn’t the worst thing that can befall us. Anyone who watches TV or surfs the Web is exposed to hundreds a day. But remember, those ads wouldn’t be very effective from the advertisers point of view if they were random.
They won’t be. Because Facebook and many other sites and services track where you go and what you guy on the Web, those ads will not be random. Again, that’s not necessarily a big deal, but when it kicks in, you’ll see just how much total strangers know about you. That’s what disturbing.
As to Instagram, remember that Facebook paid a cool $1 billion for a company that had no real business plan or revenue. At some point, Facebook needs to change that, and what better way to generate cash than to sell those pictures for use as an unpaid testimonial for somebody’s product. Facebook CEO Mark “Boy Billionaire” Zuckerberg didn’t get rich by accident.
If that sort of thing upsets you, vote with your feet, or, in this case, your delete key. But if you continue to use social media like Facebook, your personal data (including pictures) will be sliced, diced and sold. Which is to say, if you play, you have to pay.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.