As if the uproar over Instagram's monetization plans wasn't enough excitement for the week, Facebook has announced an "experiment" that lets strangers pay to have their correspondence delivered directly to your messages inbox, rather than the "other" folder.
If ever there was a sign that Facebook has completed its transition from social network to commercial network, this is it. Facebook is trying to turn a profit in a way that subverts the original purpose of the site. Paying for special delivery doesn't encourage socializing. It penalizes it.
The tool, which Facebook said is being tested among a "small number of people" in the U.S., lets individuals with whom you are not connected pay to re-route their message from the "other" heap straight to your inbox. Special treatment for a message will cost $1 per note, though Facebook is testing other prices as well. At present, users can receive a maximum of one paid message in their inbox per week.
The test is being rolled out in conjunction with new filters for Facebook's messaging system that aim to ensure important messages don't go unseen in the "Other" inbox.
But back to the paying part.
Facebook promotes its experimental fee as an effort to improve the quality of the messages that do make it to the main inbox, calling it a "small experiment to test the usefulness of economic signals to determine relevance."
Let's call this payment proposal what it is: anti-social.
Charging for VIP message delivery edges dangerously close to a tax on being friendly. Want to reach out to someone who's not in your network? Cough up the cash.
Consider the example Facebook uses to explain the necessity of this tool:
This test is designed to address situations where neither social nor algorithmic signals are sufficient. For example, if you want to send a message to someone you heard speak at an event but are not friends with, or if you want to message someone about a job opportunity, you can use this feature to reach their Inbox. For the receiver, this test allows them to hear from people who have an important message to send them.
As a user who receives no shortage of spam messages, I'm all for cutting back on clutter or fining advertisers who want to get hold of me in my inbox, uninvited.
Yet Facebook's feature stands to penalize individuals who have a valid reason to contact me by charging them for access. And the explanation that receivers will benefit from better quality messages seems dubious. If I receive a sponsored message, it's because the sender thought it was valuable, not because I did, or would. Facebook, which seeks to make the world a "more open and connected place," is charging users to open up and connect with one another.
The fee also potentially stands to bias us against correspondence that ends up in the spam folder. So this Larry guy didn't pay $1 to be sure I saw his note about applying for our job opening, huh? Well, he must not have wanted it that badly. There was no word from Facebook in its blog post on whether messages that have been sponsored by their sender will be labeled as such, though a Facebook spokeswoman noted that users will only be given the option to pay the fee if their message is destined for "other" -- meaning your BFF wouldn't have to wonder whether her messages are ending up in the spammy pile.
Even Facebook users who relish the thought of making strangers think twice about using Facebook to pitch them, bug them or stalk them via messages should have concerns about the experiment. With this new tool, Facebook is essentially allowing people to pay to override your personal settings and reach you even after you explicitly stated you didn't want them to. Facebook profits from allowing people -- and, most likely, brands -- to take up your time when you made clear you didn't want them to.
Keeping savvy scammers at bay is a gargantuan challenge for Facebook, which recently cracked down on fake "likes." Yet pay-for-delivery messages look more like a fix for Facebook's profit push than a solution to overcrowded inboxes. It's hard to believe that Facebook, of all companies, can't figure out the difference between "Help me to have more subscribers. Pleaseee?" and a long message from a user with a solid track record of normal behavior. The concern isn't so much opening your inbox to a colleague who wants to meet you or ask about job, but opening it to advertisers.
Follow Bianca Bosker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bbosker