Pay To Post

I see that Facebook is experimenting with allowing you to pay a nominal fee to make sure that your posts end up “highlighted” over those of your friends’ other friends. That’s a whole new level of crazy… or is it?

A screenshot of Facebook's new "Highlight" feature.
A screenshot of Facebook's new "Highlight" feature. For about a quid, you can push your wall posts to the top of everybody's list.

I’m not on Facebook, but I think that this is a really interesting piece of news. The biggest thing that makes Facebook unusable (and which also affects Twitter) is that people will post every little banal thing that comes to their mind. I don’t care what you’re eating for your lunch. I don’t want to read the lyrics of some song that must have been written for you. I really can’t stand your chain messages (for a while there, after I hadn’t received any by email for a few years, I hoped that they’d died out… but it turns out that they just moved to Facebook instead). If you’re among my friends, I know that you have some pretty smart and interesting things to say… but unless I’m willing to spend hours sifting through the detritus it’s buried in, I’ll never find it.

Social Media Citation. The littering fine tickets of the digital generation.
Social Media Citation. The littering fine tickets of the digital generation.

But this might work. If the price sweet spot can be found, and it’s marketed right, then this kind of feature might make services like Facebook more tolerable. When you’re writing about a cute picture of the cat you’ve seen, that’s fine. And when you write something I might care about, you can tick the “this is actually relevant” box. You’ll have to pay a few pence, but at least you know I’ll see it. And if I want to churn through reams of “X likes Chocolate” (who doesn’t?) and “Y is… in a queue for the bus” then I can turn off the “only relevant things” mode and waste some time.

The problem is that the sweet spot will vary from person to person, and there’s no way to work around that. Big Bucks Bob can probably afford to pay a couple of pounds every time he wants to push some meme photo to the top of your feed, but Poor Penniless Penny can’t even justify ten pence to make sure that all of her friends hear about her birthday party.

Google+ tries to use heuristics to show you "top" content you might be interested in.
Google+ tries to use heuristics to show you "top" content you might be interested in. It feels less insidious than charging you, as Facebook will, but it still doesn't quite work.

It’s a pity that it won’t work, because a part of me is drawn to the idea that economic theory can help to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in our information-saturated lives. Turning my attention to email: of all the cost-based anti-spam systems, I was always quite impressed with Hashcash (which Microsoft seem to be reinventing with their Penny Black project). The idea is that your computer does some hard-to-do (but easy-to-verify) computational work for each and every email that it sends. But in its own way, Hashcash has a similar problem to Facebook’s new system: the ability to pay of a sender is not directly proportional to their relevance to the recipient. If my mother wants to send me an email from her aging smartphone, should she have to wait for several minutes while it processes and generates an “e-stamp”, just because – if it were made any faster – spammers with zombie networks of computers could do so too easily?

Yes, I just equated your social network status, about what you ate for your lunch, with spam. If you don’t like it, don’t share this blog post with your friends.

hashcash token: 1:20:120511: