Pay up, Facebook!
March 23, 2010 7:40 AM   Subscribe

A student asked me this. Given that content providers to the media - journalists, bloggers etc. - are or can be paid for their content, why isn't Facebook obliged to pay me and its other 400m users, without whom it would be nothing? Or is the pleasure it gives sufficient payment in itself, a logic which my boss would love?
posted by Holly to Work & Money (49 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I believe it's all written into their TOS (Terms of Service).

Or if you want to think of it this way: They provide the bandwidth and hosting for your musings.
posted by royalsong at 7:46 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Because they are the ones providing a service, even if the service consists in us giving Facebook information.
posted by Memo at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Facebook is a service that lets its users talk to one another. Or, if you want to be a bit less human about it, "provide content" to one another. The fact that Facebook itself can use it is a side-effect, really.
posted by Citrus at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2010

Because the Terms of Service you agreed to when you signed up for Facebook do not require them to pay you for your contributions.

Inherent in the question is the idea (demonstrating a definite sinking in prose) that all "content" is equal: the creations of journalists, bloggers, and Facebook status updaters. Hopefully your student can draw the distinction between the effort required to produce even a mediocre newspaper article versus a Facebook status update about which TV show the updater is getting ready to watch.
posted by jingzuo at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why isn't metafilter obliged to pay you for the content you've just posted here?
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:48 AM on March 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

Because nobody's "obliged" to pay anything if people aren't asking to be paid. That and there's the fact that plenty of people are willing to supply content to facebook and other sites, presumably only for the benefit of using the sites. So while any one person might feel a desire to be paid, there's a legion of other nitwits willing to give it away for free.

Advertising drives quite a lot of online services, the users contributing content isn't the mission. The point is to get the users to see the advertisements.

This contrasts to a job situation in that it likely depends upon a given skill set being applied on a predictable schedule, over time. As in, you show up for work and know how to get the job done, letting management forecast what it will take to accomplish the business' goals. Can't quite do that just by having a legion of unpredictable and unreliable online nitwits wasting their hours giving content away for free.
posted by wkearney99 at 7:48 AM on March 23, 2010

I think this is pretty basic econ. Content providers in other media pay to be published as well: people self-publish books, get their album pressed up by Discmasters, run small presses at a loss or distribute pamphlets, etc.

Once there's a magic combination of demand for a certain producer's work and a convenient way to make money off of it, people get paid. E.g. one of those reality tv people gets paid like $10k per tweet by carrying ads. Sxephil-type guys make money from Youtube.

It's entirely possible that if your facebook page was awesome enough you could either (a) charge people to accept their friend requests or (b) sell some percentage of your status updates as ads. Actually, now that I think about it, I would be *shocked* if some highly-popular people aren't already doing this, like people from reality shows, at least as part of some multiplatform deal.

I don't understand why facebook would be 'obligated' to pay for something 400m people are clamoring to give away faster than the next. Is this some kind of ethical or other non-business argument? Like do you mean 'obligated by good taste' rather than 'obligated by economic necessity'?
posted by jeb at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2010

Or is the pleasure it gives sufficient payment in itself

You tell us. You obviously signed up for Facebook not expecting to get paid, and you continue to provide content to it with no expectation of payment. These actions are all 100% voluntary on your part, so you have obviously decided for yourself that the service you get from Facebook is valuable to you in some way, and that you do not require payment from them.

posted by RobotNinja at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2010

I'm not sure what the context of your question is. Are you asking if it's a legal or moral obligation or an understandable business strategy or what? In other words, what kind of force are you imagining that your "Pay up!" demand would have?
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2010

Supply and demand.
posted by Doohickie at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2010

The users also provide 100% of the content on telephones, yet you willingly pay to have one of those.

Also what wkearney99 said - nobody's obliged to pay anyone for anything.

How old is this student?
posted by MesoFilter at 7:55 AM on March 23, 2010

Ayup, supply and demand.

You don't pay for something you can have w/o paying. Pretty simple.
posted by TomMelee at 7:55 AM on March 23, 2010

Not a large enough number of people are asking Facebook to pay them, therefore Facebook isn't obliged to do anything.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:56 AM on March 23, 2010

I actually paid $5 for the opportunity to provide content to Metafilter - simply because I can't seem to keep my thoughts to myself. (See?)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:57 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think there's a nugget of an interesting question here, beyond all the glib answers. Why do we allow people to work for free in media, when they are prevented from working for free in other fields? A widget provider can't pay some people to make widgets and have other people making widgets for free in the hope they eventually get paid to do it. There are strict rules on unpaid internships.
posted by smackfu at 7:59 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Given that content providers to the media - journalists, bloggers etc. - are or can be paid for their content, why isn't Facebook obliged to pay me and its other 400m users...

emphasis added to illustrate the logical fallacy deduced.
posted by Hurst at 8:05 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Flip the question around: why aren't you paying them for online storage and hosting?

Each party in the equation thinks it's getting a good deal. Facebook doesn't have to generate content, users don't have to worry about hosting et al.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:14 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

A widget provider can't pay some people to make widgets and have other people making widgets for free in the hope they eventually get paid to do it. There are strict rules on unpaid internships.

But there are no rules on letting people engage in hobbies. People pay money to rent spaces where they practice music, blow glass, cast metal sculptures, etc, activities that some people get paid for. We let people 'work' for their own fun in all sorts of media.
posted by nomisxid at 8:15 AM on March 23, 2010

Royalsong: The fact that it's in the TOS doesn't explain it, it just legitimizes it.
RobotNinja: I guess I'd use it a lot more if I DID get paid. That would be to their benefit in ad revenue terms, right?
Jaltcoh: No "Pay up" strategy! I'm asking whether exploitation is happening, so suppose it's a moral question, tied in with a business strategy question.
MesoFilter: Neither I nor my student (18 years old) WILLINGLY pay to use telephones. I guess we willingly pay as little as we can.
Brandon Blatcher: That's what I'm driving at.
Tomorrowful: Come on, MeFI! Where's my money?
posted by Holly at 8:16 AM on March 23, 2010

You are getting paid. In exchange for providing content, Facebook gives you an easy way to stay connected with friends and family. And play farmer online, or play mob boss, or whatever else you are doing on FB. If the pay isn't sufficient you can shut your account down at anytime.
posted by COD at 8:16 AM on March 23, 2010

ChurchHatesTucker: Flip the question around again: why don't journalists pay newspapers to "host" their stories?
posted by Holly at 8:18 AM on March 23, 2010

I'm asking whether exploitation is happening, so suppose it's a moral question, tied in with a business strategy question.

Even as a very strong supporter of professional content providers being properly rewarded for their efforts, I find it hard to see an exploitation argument here. There is no compulsion to belong to Facebook, no compulsion to provide content even if you do belong to Facebook and benefit from the content there, and (precisely because it isn't remunerative) no argument that people are being effectively compelled to participate in order to feed and clothe themselves.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:19 AM on March 23, 2010

Or is the pleasure it gives sufficient payment in itself, a logic which my boss would love?

No. Consider the backbreaking amount of infrastructure and running cost to connect hundreds of millions of people around the world and maintain the security of that information (as in, allowing it to only accessed when authorized.) Consider that Facebook is also an opt-in model where you either agree to the terms Facebook provides or you and Facebook don't have anything to do with one another.

Facebook provides value; you provide value in return.
posted by Hiker at 8:21 AM on March 23, 2010

Flip the question around again: why don't journalists pay newspapers to "host" their stories?

Consider what a newspaper would be like if anyone with an opinion could pay to have it published.
posted by Hiker at 8:22 AM on March 23, 2010

Jeb: I guess the deeper question is why we're clamoring to give all this "content" away for nothing. It's because we don't see it as "content". We see it as "talking to friends". But FB sure sees it as content.
posted by Holly at 8:24 AM on March 23, 2010

Hiker: Maybe that's what newspapers ARE like. People who own media conglomerates pay other people to see their own opinions published.
posted by Holly at 8:27 AM on March 23, 2010

Given that content providers to the media - journalists, bloggers etc. - are or can be paid for their content,

Just because they "can" be paid, does "not" mean they are or should be.

Facebook is a service offering, like COD says
"In exchange for providing content, Facebook gives you an easy way to stay connected with friends and family."

Or is the pleasure it gives sufficient payment in itself.

The pleasure is the benefit only you feel from the use of a service.

Make an analogy with a shop on main street. It offers you services and products.
Services are customer service
Products are material goods.

In exchange when you walk in and even glance at something and glance away, you have just given away information that you do not like something. If multiple consumers come in and do that, you have just provided feedback to that shop without buying anything. In fact, not buying anything is feedback by itself.

At the end of the day, business is exchange, whether it is of information or a cash transaction.

Perhaps I have misunderstood?
posted by iNfo.Pump at 8:28 AM on March 23, 2010

Agreed. Why are we clamoring to post all this crap? Why do I look at 2000 times a day? Uh-oh. I fear we may have fallen into the intellectual deep end here. And if you try to grab on to me, we'll both drown.

(on a more serious note, there have been plenty of app developers who have tried to split the difference. 'You generate content, we put ads on it, we peel off some of the profits for you.'-style., for instance, works something like that. Personally, I suspect the answer to the deeper question has something to do with 'liking your facebook post : humans :: picking nits out of your fur : apes', but that what actually controls here is the fact that adding small-scale economic incentives to online interaction weirds the social dynamic irretrievably. Basically, people don't like to make a cost-benefit calculation before every mouseclick and keypress.)
posted by jeb at 8:31 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Neither I nor my student (18 years old) WILLINGLY pay to use telephones.

Of course you do; nobody's holding a gun to your head and forcing you to have a phone line. If you didn't think it was worth what you were paying, you wouldn't be paying it. You have no economic reason to care what the phone company is getting out of the deal. Likewise, nobody uses Facebook (or Google, or Gmail, etc.) because they feel like supporting a multi-billion dollar corporation; they do it because they derive a benefit from doing so, which outweighs the cost of their time. The fact that Facebook is also deriving a benefit is completely irrelevant.

The only reason Facebook would offer to pay for content was if it got them enough additional customers outweigh the cost. But (a) they already have upwards of 400 million registered users; (b) they're only making an average of a couple dollars revenue per user per year, so they could only afford to offer tiny incentives; (c) the cost of making micropayments to that many people would dwarf any conceivable benefit; and (d) it would be incredibly easy for spammers to game the system.
posted by teraflop at 8:44 AM on March 23, 2010

I'd also argue that the content you probably provide on facebook is:

a) of interest to a limited audience. If it's like my Facebook content the potential audience is a couple of hundred "friends" two thirds of whom will barely look at it.

b) of limited value. My friends might be entertained to know that I've been drinking heavily in a ski resort or to see an amusing picture of my child but it's not content they're going to spend much time on and it's certainly not content they'd ever hand over money for. In fact, it's probably not even content they'd go to a dedicated blog for.

c)requires little effort on my part. Most of my updates aim for at best "amusing in a dumb kind of way." I mean, I wouldn't compare them to a New Yorker article or even a well written blog post.

Given that, I think what Facebook pays me in services for my content is more than fair.
posted by rhymer at 8:45 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

OK, here's an example that might be useful. I like going to karaoke bars with my friends. We sing for the customers (and ourselves) and we watch other customers sing. Who should be paying whom for these performances?

You could say: "This is like seeing a normal band perform at a bar. The bar would pay those musicians, so it should pay customers to sing karaoke."

And someone else could respond: "No, it's like using a cell phone, where people pay to artificially enhance the way they vocalize to each other."

But do those characterizations determine which financial transactions are going to happen? No -- after all, you can characterize it however you want. That doesn't have any force on its own.

The question isn't how the activities are described. It's how they're valued.

I usually go to a bar in Madison, WI that charges you $1 to sing a song. There are other karaoke bars that pay customers to sing songs. I'm sure there are some that charge each customer to enter the bar just to hear the karaoke music. What's going on?

Well, just because those different arrangements exist doesn't mean anyone is wronging anyone else. No one -- neither the bar nor the DJ nor the singers nor the audience -- is obligated to pay for anything they don't want to in the absence of a legally (or morally) binding agreement. In a free market, people are free to enter whatever arrangements they want in pursuit of the greatest possible value for themselves. So, if a bar finds that people have such a strong desire to sing karaoke that they'll pay for the privilege, the bar will charge them, and customers will pay. If another bar finds that people aren't motivated to pay this money, but they will be motivated to sing for money, and these performances will make the bar more popular overall (leading to a bonanza in alcohol sales), then the bar will pay customers to sing for money.

Clearly, Facebook has determined that its users are sufficiently motivated to create and send original content to each other that they're willing to do so for free. Thus, it would be a bad business strategy for Facebook to hand any of its money over to its users. If Facebook is smart, it will keep offering its wildly popular free product and then capitalize on it through advertising.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:45 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

oh yes and...

d) It's what amuses me. Sadly I have yet to find someone who will pay me to be myself.
posted by rhymer at 8:47 AM on March 23, 2010

Seconding jingzuo - journalists should be providing a service/good that takes work and possibly training to produce and for which there is a specific demand, whereas updates from your friends and neighbors are things which anyone can create and no one would pay to get that information.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:48 AM on March 23, 2010

I really like these debates where people do the right thing by clarifying the bleedin' obvious. So the consensus seems to be that this information transaction between Facebook and me is perfect, reciprocal and generally lovely, and that there's no trace of any "exploitation" in it. Nobody's getting hurt. So be it, then. Thanks, all!
posted by Holly at 8:53 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

ChurchHatesTucker: Flip the question around again: why don't journalists pay newspapers to "host" their stories?

You have the actual products being sold all messed up in your line of thinking. Facebook is selling users (ie. you) to their advertisers. You are the product, not your "content."

In the Facebook universe (and indeed in the world, period) there will always be some people looking for a soapbox and some people looking to listen to someone else's soapbox musings. Facebook provides the soapbox, which benefits both types of people. It also sells ads, which target both types of people. For Facebook, their advertisers, and 400 million people, this is a win-win situation. You don't have to provide content in order to be part of this equation, all you have to do is log in to Facebook once in a while. What's to figure out?

Also, the newspaper thing is a poor analogy. People go to newspapers for informed opinion, news, entertainment scoops, etc., not for a witty joke about what their Uncle Jerry ate for breakfast. In other words, the old newspaper model rests on professional and often exclusive content geared for a mass audience. This content is expensive to produce, requires elements of expertise, and commands a price in the marketplace. But believe me when I say that newspapers are no different than Facebook; they're also selling you to their advertisers. They're just based on a business model where paying for content is the cost of lining up an audience. Facebook on the other hand is all about small, individualized networks, with content by and for friends and family. The audience for a single piece of "content" (like Uncle Jerry's breakfast) is relatively small, and the value of that single piece of content is essentially worthless, but the audience for this type of individual networking tool is huge, and the value of that audience (to advertisers) is huuuuuuuge.

The Facebook business model (like lots of web communities) is based on the simple idea that people will provide a certain type of content for free. But it's not the same type of content you'll get from journalists.
posted by hamandcheese at 8:56 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess the deeper question is why we're clamoring to give all this "content" away for nothing. It's because we don't see it as "content". We see it as "talking to friends". But FB sure sees it as content.

I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of economic value here. It's worth it to millions of people just to have a way to speak to their friends. That means that the economic value of talking to your friends is nothing at all. Not only are they giving it away, they're giving it away and letting Facebook make money.

The part that bugs me about this structure isn't the fact that there's a service provider here. After all, my ISP makes money off me as well. It's the walled garden aspect of Facebook. Some people say it just recapitulates AOL and in the vaguest social sense that may be right, although I think it offers utility far beyond and of a different nature than the old-time BBS (however graphical, that's what AOL was). It bothers me that it isn't a free and open structure. As fundamentally similar as it now is to Twitter, the latter offers a much more acceptable (OH HAI EV) financial and infrastructural model for a social news feed.

But if you expect to get paid for your content, you have to offer something that has value to the content provider. So far, even professional journalism, let alone blogging, is in a race to the bottom here. The question is not so much when do we get paid as when do they stop paying professional writers enough to live on. A lot of J-school grads are already past that point.
posted by dhartung at 8:58 AM on March 23, 2010

teraflop: Thanks. What I meant was that I and everyone else would presumably be happier if phone services were free, as FB manages to be.
posted by Holly at 8:59 AM on March 23, 2010

So the consensus seems to be that this information transaction between Facebook and me is perfect, reciprocal and generally lovely, and that there's no trace of any "exploitation" in it.

If you don't like giving away what you see as valuable content for free to facebook, then stop using facebook. There is no law that says you must use it. What is the exploitation here?
posted by rtha at 9:00 AM on March 23, 2010

"ChurchHatesTucker": "You are the product, not your "content." That nails it for me. And I think it will for my student.
posted by Holly at 9:06 AM on March 23, 2010

I'm a writer. Most of what I do is tech writing for corporations. I also write sporadically for other venues such as web and print. The majority of my income is made by explaining things concisely in writing. Not everyone is good at doing that kind of thing, so companies pay me for this skill. I am very proficient at procedural writing, although not so much at writing concise posts on Metafilter, I suppose.

Occasionally, I write articles about other things that I think people would like to hear about and sometimes I can sell those. It's harder to be engaging and interesting on demand than one might think. So when I get the engaging part right, people pay me for that, too. I am paid for doing this because for some reason people seem to want to read what I have to say. That helps publishers sell their publications.

If you want to skip my impending tl;dr, the short version is like some people have touched on above: Not all content that is produced has monetary value. It's like hamandcheese said. Whether your content is worth money in any kind of market is a matter of the scope of the audience it will attract.

What I think is that there's a key difference between me writing an article and getting it printed in a magazine and your Aunt Marge going on Facebook and updating her status with something about her cats. The difference is that I have tapped into the interests of a broad audience (thousands or hopefully hundreds of thousands) who presumably need or want to read what I write. Therefore I have a market for my content. My content has value because it helps sell a product that people are paying actual money for and (hopefully) nets a profit for the companies that distribute it. On the other hand, it would be generous to assume that there are maybe 12 people in America who care about your Aunt Marge's cats. How are you going to sell that?

People don't get paid to blather on Facebook because their audience is basically limited to people who know them best and thus care about what they have to say. If you're really popular, that's what number? Maybe a couple hundred people at most. Probably far less. The minutiae of the Average Joe's everyday life isn't that compelling if you don't have a personal connection to that person.

Facebook is providing you, the user, a platform on which you can distribute your own personal minutiae to a select audience. This is valuable for its users, who really just want to show off their baby pictures and talk about their wedding or last night's kegger or whatnot in a convenient manner. They give their users a means to disseminate information they already want to share with people, and they can do this easily, all in one place. But this content they are providing via Facebook still does not have marketable value, because it's of limited interest. It's really only relevant to the user's personal network of connections.

In return for its users reaping the value of its service, it shows you a buttload of advertising so the company can earn money. But Facebook still doesn't make money from distributing your content per se. They earn revenue because they can collect and market the data you have provided. In essence, you're valuable to Facebook and its advertisers not because of the actual content you create on it, but because of the insight that you provide about the behavior of people in your demographic and your preferences. But the content you publish on Facebook in and of itself doesn't hold very much value.

The same thing goes for photos. There's a difference between compelling photojournalism and a collection of photos of some drunk coeds doing keg stands. There's a market and audience for the former, while the latter only has value to people who have a connection to it somehow.

Ever notice how many people seem to be aspiring writers and novelists? I've noticed that a lot of people think there's nothing to being a writer. But every time someone hands me a manuscript of their novel (despite the fact that I don't do fiction and I have no connections to any kind of fiction publishing markets), it's bloody awful.

That's because it's much harder than most people think to write or produce things that someone wants to read. Expecting that Facebook should pay its users for content is overstating the value of what most people put on it, since most of what people post on Facebook is fairly boring. You couldn't take most of that stuff outside of the context of Facebook and make a buck off it, as it stands. That's why they're not paying you for your content.
posted by howrobotsaremade at 9:18 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

"ChurchHatesTucker": "You are the product, not your "content."

That was hamandcheese, but spot on. It's equally true for MainStream Media, which sells eyeballs to advertisers. The difference is that Facebook enables users to generate content to attract other users (eyeballs) while the MSM pays people to do it for them.

More to my point: consider YouTube. Users get free hosting for videos. This is a great service, as videos are bandwidth-intensive and expensive to host. Under normal hosting agreements, if your vid goes viral you will eventually max out the bandwidth you paid for, or get hit with a ginormous bill. With YouTube, they ensure it gets out there. In return, they run some ads. Win/win.

Now, if your vids are consistently popular, it starts to make sense to host yourself and manage your own ad stream. YouTube recognizes this and will cut you in on the ad profits to encourage you to maintain your content with them. Again, win/win.

It's really just supply and demand. Tell your student that they're free to negotiate a fair price for their content with Facebook, or host their own site if that's unacceptable. They'll get the point fairly quickly.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:25 AM on March 23, 2010

Further, while on the surface Facebook is purely a large network of friends, that network is constantly reinforced and enlarged through peer pressure. I got lots of e-mails from friends requesting I join, and now I've gotten (jokey) e-mails telling me that Facebook is telling them I'm not logging in very often.
posted by graventy at 9:33 AM on March 23, 2010

In the before times, before even friendster, I overheard this paraphrased conversation:

"it's a hassle to keep generating new insightful funny articles for my website. Making money off this e/n thing is hard."

"What if we streamline a site where users make all the content for us? People are leaving anonymous behind and treating the internet like an extension of themselves. And then we sell ads and get grants and expand wildly out of control."

"Nah, it'd never work."
posted by beardlace at 9:55 AM on March 23, 2010

"are or can be paid" (Emphasis, mine)

Facebook could pay you.
posted by wrok at 11:04 AM on March 23, 2010

teraflop: Thanks. What I meant was that I and everyone else would presumably be happier if phone services were free, as FB manages to be.

I can't disagree with this strongly enough. For phone service to be "free" it would require revenue generation some other way. Would you make calls if you were forced to listen to an advertisement before each call? Or during?

We pay for the service because it is of value to us. If we don't pay, there is little incentive for the service provider to provide value.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:13 PM on March 23, 2010

Callers to a morning call-in show don't get paid, either. The vast majority of content on Facebook is mindless drivel. I'm interested in the mindless drivel (sometimes) of my friends and family. Facebook provides a free place for people to share information, so it's a pretty fair tradeoff. I don't even mind the ads.

I do mind the games that want me to share mindless drivel with everyone in my address book. I'm uncommonly bored with the farming and mafia crap cluttering up facebook.

The ethical issues about facebook and privacy are well worth attention. The way they always want to peruse my email account is not a good feeling.
posted by theora55 at 12:40 PM on March 23, 2010

You could say the same thing about Metafilter.
posted by NoraReed at 1:34 PM on March 23, 2010

"why don't journalists pay newspapers to "host" their stories?"

Actually, talk radio stations do sell air time to shows, then those shows either run their own ads or raise money some other way.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:42 PM on March 23, 2010

A Facebook user asked me this. Given that internet hosting providers are or can be paid for hosting my content, why aren't I charged hosting fees by Facebook, and the other 40 social networking sites I use, without whom no-one would be able to read my thoughts? Or is the advertising revenue it gets sufficient payment in itself, a logic which I would love?
posted by primer_dimer at 4:58 AM on March 24, 2010

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