Facebook Subscription Groups could change our social networking

28 June 2018
Mark Zuckerberg - Chief Executive Officer of Facebook
By Seamus Byrne

Would you pay for Facebook?

What about just one small part you care deeply about?

Last week Facebook announced it is testing just that — a trial program called Subscription Groups, allowing a very small number of group administrators to charge a subscription fee.

It's a trial, but it could change everything about the social network. If only enough people would be willing to put their money where their data lives.

We all know Facebook has been stretched to breaking point in 2018.

Investigations over Cambridge Analytica and the misuse of user data. The growing understanding of its role in the spread of fake news to sow political polarisation. And the very basic issue of younger users avoiding the platform because it's turned into the place your grandma lives.


The best thing about Facebook

But for all its problems, Groups represent Facebook at its best.

Hubs for digital communities where users come together to share advice and help each other. All available in an easily accessible space frequented by billions of people around the world.

When a group gets big, it demands real management effort. And according to Alex Deve, product director of Groups at Facebook, many group administrators already run subscription groups through convoluted processes.

"Many admins do this today by creating an additional subscribers-only group that sits alongside their existing group, and rely on additional tools to track and collect payments," Mr Deve said in a blog post.

"Subscription groups were created to make it easier for admins to provide these experiences with built-in tools, and to save them time so they can focus on offering members-only content."

There's no downside to a trial

Groups named in the trial cover topics like decluttering your home, preparing children for applying to US colleges, and meal planning advice.

And, according to The Verge, as part of the trial Facebook won't be taking a cut of the proceeds, and those involved in the pilot are charging between US$4.99 and US$29.99 for access to their groups.

There is no part of trialling paid user groups that is a bad thing for online communities. My biggest concern is really whether too few people will participate, killing off a valuable shift in who the "customer" could be before it even gets started.

Everything that is wrong with Facebook boils down to its advertising-focused business model. We users are not the customer, we are the product to be sold. And sold we have been.

All recent efforts to improve its image in this regard is driven by its fear that any shift in our attention will reduce its ability to sell said attention.

But what if we paid to use Facebook?

A monthly fee to access an advertising-free, deep-tracking-free version of the platform?

Let's be clear that this is not Facebook's plan and never will be. During congressional testimony in the US, Mark Zuckerberg stated that "there will always be a free version of Facebook".

That's a statement that is careful to not suggest everything will always be free. But that for those who can't afford to pay, advertising will always keep the wheels turning.

So perhaps one day they will offer a paid option to those who want to lose the ads, but the freely-accessible, advertiser-funded version will always remain.

Plugging the time sink

Surveys of user willingness to pay suggest few would ever do so. One such survey suggested between 1 in 5 and 1 in 10 Facebook users in North America and the UK would be willing to pay. And I'd bet many of those who say they'd pay would not get around to it if the option did launch.

But, if enough people paid, the entire platform would be built based on what paying users wanted it to be. An enhancement to our lives, not a time sink

Subtleties of design could help us to get what we needed quickly and easily and get out again, not encourage endless scrolling behaviours to ensure we stay in the feed as long as possible to maximise our advertising exposure.

Charging users has not been at the heart of what Facebook does in a long time. Games, stickers and other user payments revenue exists and were certainly more prominent in the past, but in the first quarter of 2018 more than 98 per cent of Facebook revenue was advertising.

In fact, Facebook's quarterly global advertising revenue per user was over US$5.45 worldwide. When isolated to North America that quarterly number leaps to US$23.14 (Australia is hard to isolate within an "Asia Pacific" average of US$2.45).

For Facebook to somehow sever the arterial flow of advertising dollars, it's a safe bet a monthly subscription fee would have to be in the order of $10 or more to give Facebook something more attractive than what it gets by selling our attention to the highest bidders.

Would you pay that kind of money? What about for just one group you care deeply about?

User-centric paid platforms have to start somewhere. For Facebook, the beachhead will be Subscription Groups.

The experiment begins. Let's hope it's an idea that holds the seed of a less ad-driven Facebook in our collective future.

Seamus Byrne is a technology journalist and the editor of Beyond at ScienceAlert.

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