Last week, after reading a BusinessWeek blog advocating that Facebook start charging a nominal fee for its services, I posted a message on the site asking whether participants would be willing to pay an annual $25 fee.
I understand that this is an era where everything on the Internet must be free, an entitlement!, but it seemed that this relative pittance—about the same as one of the magazine subscriptions that so many people have let elapse (even the $7.97 that gets you a year, for better or worse, of Esquire)—wouldn't be so onerous that Facebook would suffer a massive defection among its approximately 300 million active users. Perhaps the Facebook habit is one that could be kicked in short order, and certainly the twice-a-week browsers would soon forget the social networking site even existed, but it's my bet that a majority of the site's members would grumble and then pay up.
I would, not only for professional reasons, but also because Facebook posts the birthdates of numerous relatives and a few longtime friends. Facebook, when first encountered, is a cesspool that leaves much of my generation (Boomers) feeling a bit degraded, with all the extraneous pictures, self-aggrandizement and meaningless chatter, but once you cut through the clutter it can be useful and even entertaining. On Oct. 6, for example, I enjoyed a brief to-and-fro with The National Review's John Miller, a rabid Detroit Tigers fan who was naturally very tense about his team's one-game playoff with the Minnesota Twins. I like talking, or corresponding, about baseball, so this was a worthwhile diversion. Miller joked when asked about a fee, writing, "Yes—if it meant more anti-Twins messages from you!"
As might be expected, my random survey elicited a wide array of responses. Alex Beam, a columnist for The Boston Globe, was in the emphatic "no" camp, and when pressed, after I suggested that young adults would sign up, he wrote, "Some young person would just hack together a new site, with, say, 85 percent of Facebook functionality. It's not like this site is awash with super-sophisticated technology." That's a valid point—there are, and would be, any number of alternatives to Facebook—but I'm not sure that regular users, for the sake of 25 bucks a year, would go through the trouble of setting up a network on a competing site.
On the opposite side was an old friend, Amy Sohn, an author and New York columnist, who said, "I would pay $25 because I use Facebook for promotional reasons, and could get a tax deduction for it. My friends, thirtysomething parents on it for social reasons, would probably resist at first but within a year all would pay, just like we pay nominal fees for songs and TV shows... people are willing to pay to stay in the loop."
Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason, responded: "I'd cut it off, though mostly because I now regret having friended half the known universe, instead of just my friends. Author, radio host, and journalist Kurt Andersen was more casual, saying, "I often say I wouldn't mind if Facebook disappeared tomorrow. On the other hand, sure, I'd pay $25 a year, as would each of the other three members of my family." And Susan Orlean, a New Yorker staff writer and author of The Orchid Thief, hedged a bit: "I think I'd probably pay for Facebook, but not more than $25. I don't feel it's worth more than that, and [$25] feels like about the right kind of price."
Bill Wyman, a veteran arts critic whose blog Hitsville remains excellent, had, in my opinion, a reasonable take. He said, "In principle [I'd pay], yes, but lots of people would leave, so the $25 fee would have to come with some perks. Facebook should obviously improve the mail system, integrate it with the chat, and maybe turbocharge the groups pages."
Elena Seibert, a childhood friend who's a photographer living in Manhattan with her family, was definitive: "Definitely not. It would be the perfect excuse to cancel what I perceive as a guilty pleasure and time waster. In many ways, I like it, especially when having ‘conversations' with friends around the world whom I rarely get to see. But the remarks about hours of sleep, cups of coffee, and day-to-day minutiae really turns me off. But my [teenage] son would definitely say yes."
Closer to home, my 16-year-old son Nicky was fairly unequivocal about remaining in the Facebook fold: "I would pay the $25 simply because I use it so often. It's a really great and useful tool and would be worth the money. Obviously, I'd prefer it remain free, but if that changes I'd cave in, although not without some serious whining. Much like paying for cell phones and Internet use [ahem, Nicky, mom and dad pay those bills!], I think most young people would come around and ante up."
My nephew Quinn, 22, a musician in New York, was of a similar mind: "To be honest, I probably would pay the 25 bones. I imagine most people would." His brother Rhys, a high school senior in London, wasn't as sure, saying, "My initial reaction would be to pay the fee, because it's a good form of communication. That said, if a lot of my friends dropped it, I would too, because Facebook would become useless."
My niece Jenny, a bit older, living in Seattle with her family, would also acquiesce, even though she's not a "Facebook junkie." She continued, "I only check it every few days, but use to it stay in touch with groups of friends from all over the country. I like to see pictures of their kids, so, assuming they stayed on, I'd pay the $25." Her sister Zoe, while acknowledging that she feels "queasy" when members post "embarrassing messages," said she'd pay up. "Mostly, I feel that in this day and age, Facebook is just something everyone does and it's part of being touch with 2009... It's just not that much money and I appreciate the powerful tool that it is."
I've often wondered about the resentment felt by the original Facebook users, back when it was confined to students, before the site's owners opened it up, like when the fences came down at Woodstock, to the whole world. Judging by Facebook's enormous success—at least measured by registrants and web traffic; who really knows about its advertising revenue—most youngsters have shrugged off the intrusion of older people who are eager to get in on yet another new gadget.
My friend Eric Schmidt, a recent graduate of American University, didn't agree. In fact, his reply was an articulate argument about how the dynamic of Facebook has been altered since it was opened up. He wrote: "If there was a fee, I'd drop it, and probably be grateful. I now check FB out of habit, rather than a strong interest in it. When I came to college it was great as a tool to stay in touch with friends back in California, but now the people I'm most interested in I communicate through email or phone. Once Facebook opened up access, I felt it sort of castrated my ability to speak more casually and freely. I don't want to make any political comments, lest I stir bad blood with my relatives who have different views. Frankly, FB just isn't fun anymore. I like talking to people the way I did 10 years ago."
Dan Radosh, a Manhattan journalist who's written for scads of magazines and is a now a staff writer for The Daily Show, also gave an emphatic no, doubting that such a plan would lure current registrants. He said: "No way. And as you know, I'm a pretty active user. For one thing, I'd have to be sure that all my current friends would also pay, and I'm betting they wouldn't. If they dropped out it would drastically diminish the value of the site for me. And, frankly, even a low price would still make me question whether it's worth it. Already, I don't pay $40 a year for Xbox Live, and it has a lot more to offer than FB (although if it were free I'd use it all the time...) However, if anything could get me to sign up for Twitter, a fee for Facebook would probably be the thing."
Now, that's harsh, especially for a fellow who, as he says, is currently on Facebook a lot.
Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair columnist and partner at the aggregator site Newser, was typically detailed in his response, although like almost everybody else, wasn't sure what results Facebook would net by charging.
He writes: "[W]hat seems clear is that a pay wall decreases traffic by huge amounts, often up to 95%. Even assuming, in the case of Facebook, it would be less because people have a vested interest in the data they've accumulated there, you're still talking about the loss of a big chunk of traffic. At least 50%, maybe as high as 80%. Now, even given that loss, it would be monumentally profitable for Facebook, potentially 100 million people paying $25. The problem, as I see it, is that social networking depends on an ever-expanding critical mass. If there were suddenly half as many people on Facebook and if its new member growth dramatically stalled, I think the experience would seem substantially diminished, meaning you would lose more people. So, while I might pay in the beginning, I would carefully reevaluate the decision at every opportunity, and, I suspect, soon enough decide it was less and less worth it."
It could be that as a reader who once subscribed to about 50 magazines, I'm taking for granted that $25 annually wouldn't break the budget of most Facebook users, even in a crummy economy. Really, that's just a bit more than $2 a month. It's not as if you're buying a car or house or even a new pair of pants. So when a savvy guy like Wolff says he'd "carefully reevaluate" the hypothetical $25 fee "at every opportunity" I'm very surprised. When Facebook's founders cash out, whether selling to a large corporation, or even an IPO if the market improves, it seems inevitable a nominal charge will be instituted.