Will Facebook Be Free Forever?

If you’ve logged onto Facebook recently (and who hasn’t), you may have noticed a little promise front and center: “It’s free and always will be.” But many out there don’t seem to believe it – are they right? And, in general, should we believe any corporate promises?

If you’re skeptical about my claim that many people don’t believe Facebook’s promise, just look at the chain post that spread like wildfire a few days ago:


That hoax wasn’t a stand-alone incident, either. According to Snopes.com, rumors of Facebook charging have flared up every few months since late 2009.

In response, the company has repeated their “It’s free and always will be” pledge, but to my eyes that promise is not as clear as one might think.

When Facebook says, “It’s free,” what exactly is “it”? Is “it” our personal profile, our status updates, our links to connections, our social games or one of the other million and a half services Facebook provides? When it comes to promises like this, it’s often future lawyers that will fight for meaning and with a word like “it,” Facebook has the advantage.

When you read Facebook’s terms and conditions, you’ll see a few indications that charging for services that we currently see as inherent is open to possibility. For example, mobile is “currently” provided for free.

Screenshot of Facebook Terms and Conditions

Screenshot of Facebook Terms and Conditions

What’s more, as we recently learned from Netflix, just because Facebook’s many services are under a single umbrella today doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, perhaps the new “Facegames” company will require a $2.99 monthly membership fee.

Now I’m not saying that Facebook will charge you. Spinning off Facebook gaming apps today would be like cutting off Facebook’s arm and then expecting it to take dictation. But if you imagine five, ten or twenty years down the road, you realize that Facebook may not be on top – may not even be in the running – and would need major cash to afford to store your long history of updates. Or maybe Facebook will be public and thereby subject to the collective greed of anonymous shareholders.

If you’re skeptical, then I’m sorry to say that you’re also naïve. In The Art of the Steal, Albert Barnes’ seemingly ironclad will is eroded slowly as its board creates excuse after excuse to violate nearly every clause. What’s more, as we’ve witnessed during the financial crisis, the government is very willing to forgive transgressions much more extreme than a small promise like Facebook’s.

So now that I’ve convinced you that Facebook could start charging, let me throw out a new argument. From a business perspective, Facebook won’t charge the average user – not now and not for a long time.

Whether that original promise was made out of ignorance and chutzpah or business savvy, I’ll never know, but what’s clear is that charging users would not only mean bad PR and bad mojo, but it would also mean the loss of millions of users and an open door for Facebook’s competition. Your personal data and traffic are Facebook’s top assets, so to put those in jeopardy would be a colossal mistake.

But before you start cheering, let me add that getting charged by a website like Facebook isn’t necessarily a negative. Currently Facebook’s priorities are split between creating an optimal user experience and improving their revenue opportunities. Better targeting for display ads is better for Facebook and kind of better for you, but like the new Timeline user interface is good for you. Now imagine a future where Facebook is primarily a paid service. In that future, a larger percentage of the company’s focus would be devoted to keeping users, which would mean constant innovation and improvement to the user experience.

In the end, I’m skeptical whether Facebook’s pledge and others like it are beneficial or whether they even matter at all.

On the one hand, I commend Facebook for making the kind of vow users dream of but rarely receive. On the other hand, many users either don’t remember it or don’t believe it. Like so many others who have been burned by corporations again and again in the name of profit, I’m skeptical and am ultimately only convinced that Facebook will hold true to its word because it’s word is in the company’s long-term best interest.

Do you think Facebook will charge one day? Let me know in the comments!

Bonus Links!

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~ by SFcopywriter on October 3, 2011.

6 Responses to “Will Facebook Be Free Forever?”

  1. You are looking too in-depth into this. If facebook charge people will move to another free site. Idiot

    • Thanks for the feedback. I actually agree that will Facebook not charge users: “From a business perspective, Facebook won’t charge the average user – not now and not for a long time.”

  2. Quite simply. no. I have this discussion with my boss every now and then. He thinks they will. To me it’s obvious they won’t.

    The database of over 600 Million users is facebook’s biggest source of income and always will be. The potential profitable avenues for facebook to go down are already endless, without the need to charge users to use their service. By charging for their service they would only cannibalize their own business. I refer to their ‘service’ as the main service they provide to their users at this point in time.

    Personally i think we will see more in the way of integrated services that are charged out by third parties. Eg – facebook/Skype. Streaming movie services in the future etc.

    What i do think is scary is, we could end up with a new world wide web structure that is completely dominated by Facebook.

    What if people stopped referring to the web as ‘the web’ but instead as ‘facebook’.

    Eg – im in a web development company right now where we are getting more requests to build a facebook presence for a company than a true custom www presence. Facebook vanity url’s are becoming more sought after than the TLD’s. How many TV ads do you see with a facebook url rather than a domain name now? Even email is being killed off by Facebook Messaging.

    Now with that in mind imagine if facebook slapped a charge on their ‘main service’. Im betting easily over 50% of people would leave the social network and quite possibly that number could reach to over 90%. Very silly move and im betting the likes of Google would be very happy!

    In closing, If anyone will suffer it will be businesses. I can see paid hosting solutions, paid custom solutions (more so than the existing facebook ‘pages’). Paid vanity urls. etc, but not a charge for the average user of Facebook.

    • Wow, really thoughtful response, Mike! Your ideas about Facebook URLs make me think it’s like the opposite of what happened to AOL – remember back then? There was a time when people did think of the internet as AOL and when most businesses said, “Find us online. AOL keyword: XYZ.” But I think it’s been more than 10 years now since I’ve heard that phrase.

    • Well said man.

      Facebooks greatest asset is the information they possess about its users. Tons of income comes from that database. If they started charging people would just go to the next free site and facebook would die. No one likes paying for things when they can get it somewhere else for free with just a click of a button and like you said Google would jump on that opportunity in a heart beat.

      • I love that you’re bringing Google into the conversation, too, as they have embraced the “freemium” model to a very small extent (which is more than Facebook has done up until this point). You can pay for extra Gmail storage, for example, as well as some premium software. For the average user, Google services are free, but power users and businesses pay for certain tools. Perhaps Facebook will head in that direction, too? It’s interesting to think about.

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