There is no such thing as a free post

To those who take pride in a substantial friend count on Facebook, here’s a possible shocker. How many of your friends do you think see your posts? A tech blogger estimated that a mere 12 per cent see your average status update. This was while Facebook was probably testing a paid feature to ‘highlight’ posts only for the average Joe online. Today, your option to ‘promote’ an important post comes with a small price tag of 437 rupees. This premium placement fee means that what you put out will be moved higher in your friends’ news feeds but will be marked ‘sponsored’.

If newspapers can have power jacket advertisements and advertorials with captions that can be made to resemble headlines, if even cricket match telecasts can have commercial space between overs and sometimes even between balls, if airlines can have higher priced executive class seats and theatres have premium tickets, why can’t the social media cash in on a business opportunity as well?

Not quite. Newspapers, except the neighbourhood ones, are not free but based on subscriptions. And you pay for entertainment. Ditto for travel. Facebook, on the other hand, made a promise from its inception, that “it is free and always will be”. This is the tight rope that the social networking site now has to walk. What will happen to its ‘sense of community’? Shouldn’t that take precedence over any potential revenue stream? Isn’t this the basis for its very existence? Are there not ways to sugar coat the charges if they are that crucial? How about a couple of free promoted posts for regular users every month? No one expects Facebook to survive on love and fresh air. No one grudges its side panel advertisements. Or, sponsored content for business pages.

Visibility of posts on your news feed will also hinge on how many friends you have. Less is more. More the friends, more the clutter that you would have to scroll down. Frankly, if Facebook is to control the placement of posts, should the thickness of a user’s wallet or the inclination to spend to tom tom, matter more than the creativity of the update? If the answer is a sheepish ‘yes’, then what’s the message being sent out — that content is not king? That commerce is?

What does it take for the networking giant to periodically highlight the wittiest status updates? The subjects can be narrowed down to what is trending. It will most definitely create an added buzz and the competitive twist will make the interface more exciting.

To give you an example, if I were to pick a current topic such as Rahul Gandhi’s outburst on the infamous ordinance on politicians, I would have cited this post from Loreto Xavier that clearly stood out from all the prattle and filibustering. “Let everyone wax eloquent about Rahul Gandhi's ‘immaturity’. But considering the morally questionable ordinance the great stalwarts of Indian polity were going to bring, immaturity is far more tolerable to me. It takes a little boy to say the King is without new clothes, nay, any clothes.”

For the last few weeks, many of you would have noticed a lovely montage of select profile pictures of users around the world on Facebook’s log in page. Most of the pictures were creatively shot and quite snappy. It has been taken off now but I quite liked the idea.

Now imagine if you hear that the chosen few paid to figure on that page. Wouldn’t it dilute the credibility of that feature? And those users?

The same logic holds good for a promoted post. What if the post is about blood or organ donation or some similar social cause? Will Facebook charge to promote such posts too? Whither corporate social responsibility?

There is indeed no such thing as a free lunch. Or a post.

But I must give Facebook credit for formulating absolutely water-tight advertising guidelines to ensure that critics don’t get to quip “lies, damn lies and posts”!

I love you, Facebook. But don’t let your head grow bigger than your heart.

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