Facebook's Latest Monetization Experiment: Email Spam

Facebook forgets that there'e something just a little bit sacred about an inbox.

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Facebook has announced a new method of money-making: "a small experiment to test the usefulness of economic signals." The experiment will allow users to send messages to people they are not Facebook friends with for a small transaction fee. Think LinkedIn Premium's "InMails" system.

As All Things D's Peter Kafka explains it:

A limited number of U.S. Facebook users will now have the ability to pay Facebook a fee to send a message other U.S. Facebook users who they don't know. Facebook isn't spelling out the cost publicly, but people familiar with the company's plans say it will start at a dollar a message, and will tinker with the fee over time. The option will only be available to individual users -- not marketers and brands -- and Facebook will only allow users to receive a single paid message per week. But users can't opt not to receive paid messages.

Now, Facebook's take on this is slightly different: The service emphasizes the fact that pay-to-say-hey is essentially Facebook's way of stepping in where "social and algorithmic signals" fall short. Basically, when Facebook's existing, friend-based infrastructure falls short. So, for example, if you're a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson (and who, indeed, is not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson?) ... and if Neil deGrasse Tyson is not, in turn, a fan of you ... then you can pony up a buck to send him a note. Or if you want to ask someone about a job opportunity, Facebook notes -- or ask a question of someone you heard speak at an event -- all it takes is a dollar. 

The idea here is that social connection in the broad sense does not need to rely on social connection in the narrow. Gone are the days when we needed formal "notes of introduction" to be connected to people whose acquaintances we want to make. Gone are the days, too, when we needed to be networked with people in order to communicate with them. Now, for the price of maybe-a-dollar, Facebook will act as your social secretary. The benefits of this to the desirer of acquaintance, Facebook suggests, are so obvious as to be implied. For the receiver, the benefits are less obvious -- though this method, Facebook points out, "allows them to hear from people who have an important message to send them."

So. On the one hand, this is a legitimately interesting monetization experiment -- and, for that matter, a legitimately interesting social experiment. Will people actually want to be connected in this money-moderated way? How will the introduction of money to the workings of introduction itself -- the "economic signals" Facebook mentions -- change those workings' dynamics? The system could have a nice deterrent effect, Facebook points out, discouraging spammers (who ostensibly wouldn't be so willing to pay to play) from reaching your inbox. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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