But this is only a test balloon for something else in the future: the monetization of mass communication.
Up until now, using email and social media has been unmetered and free – Zuckerberg has been making some money by selling your data but it’s not enough to claim global domination the way Google has with its advertising business. That is all set to change. Once the big corps have enough people addicted and dependent, they will start to charge – for everything. The next phase will paying to contact your “friends” in much the same way that you buy a monthly plan for your cell/mobile phone – and this will likely be done through your mobile phone service provider. You will charge up with credits and top-up as you go. Very clever business model, right? Everyone will pay for it because they will feel as if they need it – if they don’t pay, they will be left out of the club.
While celebrities quiver at the thought that they might be in the bargain 71p category, the rest of us have to wonder whether we’ll really be prepared to pay to contact them. Facebook has started a trial among 10% of its UK users, charging them to send “priority” messages to people outside their friends list, on a sliding scale ranging from 71p to just under £11.
The price depends on which country they are in, whether anyone else has paid to send them a message and how many friends they have, which is why it will probably cost more to contact celebrities. “The challenge was how do you [send a message to someone's inbox] and it not become a mechanism for spam. If you put some sort of financial tariff on it, that would be an instant disincentive,” says Iain Mackenzie, Facebook’s European communications manager, who wants to stress it will just as likely be used to contact non-celebrities (he gives the example of a company approaching someone with a job offer).
I can see why it might appeal. As a child, I was a prolific letter writer. I wrote – for the price of a second-class stamp – to numerous people, including Margaret Thatcher, Geoff Capes and favourite authors (I remember receiving a lovely letter from Nina Bawden). I wrote to Sinitta, my favourite pop star, but she never replied. I think the picture I had drawn of us holding hands at Top of the Pops might have put her off.
I can only find a Sinitta page on Facebook, not a personal account, so I can’t send her a direct message – same for Maya Angelou, who I’d also pay to contact. Arsène Wenger might be on Facebook, but with hundreds of people with that name, all pretending to be the Arsenal manager, how do I know which is the right one? The Sunday Timesreported that it costs £10.68 to send messages to fake Ed Sheeran accounts. Truly, the end days are upon us.
The diver Tom Daley is one of the celebrities highlighted as attracting the highest charge (£10.68), so I should get in quick and send him a message before I have to pay. The problem is, I don’t know what to write that doesn’t sound predatory so I write something banal about the Olympics. He doesn’t reply.
Facebook appears to have settled on the charges after a similar experiment in the US (at one point they were charging people $100 to contact Mark Zuckerberg) but surely there should be a wider scale, using a complex algorithm based on how little they would like to hear from you – 50p for Geri Halliwell; £500 for Meryl Streep; £5,000 for Thomas Pynchon.
If Facebook wants to charge me more than £10 to send a message to Daley, surely it should be able to force him to reply? Perhaps this is something they could look at. If it could guarantee me a personal reply from, say, Barack Obama or Paul Hollywood or Sinitta, perhaps by filling their timelines with nothing but baby scan photos until they relent, I would save up and pay big money. Zuckerberg can have that idea for free.