Your Facebook inbox — one of the last ad-free frontiers of the social web — is going up for sale.
Facebook has done a lot to Messages over the last year. Its ambition there is nearly limitless: It wants to fix chat, IM, email and texting, in one fell swoop. Its newest feature for Messages, though, is selling access to your inbox.
Today we’re starting a small experiment to test the usefulness of economic signals to determine relevance. This test will give a small number of people the option to pay to have a message routed to the Inbox rather than the Other folder of a recipient that they are not connected with.
Some quick background before getting into what this means: Currently, if you go to your Facebook messages, you'll notice you have an inbox and an "other," which is semi-hidden. Other is where Facebook stuffs messages from people that it thinks are less relevant to you. For instance, a message from somebody you're not friends with. It's changing its Messaging filters today slightly, so you now have two filtering options — basic and strict. With basic filtering, "you'll see mostly messages from friends and people you may know (for example, friends of friends) in your Inbox," says Facebook. But with strict filtering "you'll see mostly messages from friends in your Inbox." Everything else lands in the Other box.
Here's where the pay-to-play inbox comes in. A small number of Facebook users in the United States — and this is individuals, not companies or brands — will be able to pay a fee to have a message from them land directly in the inbox of somebody they don't know, instead of being quarantined to the Other zone. That fee, says Peter Kafka, will start at $1, though Facebook is going to "tinker with it over time." In other words, somebody you don't know can pay Facebook a dollar to send a message directly to your inbox and there's nothing you can do about it. On the bright side, this is limited to one message per week. And as Kafka notes, "Maybe you do want to hear from those people! And the one-message-a-week cap, combined with the $1 fee, will prevent your inbox from filling up with spam." But there is no way around the fact your inbox is for sale.
Facebook, like all businesses, needs to make money. And the most valuable thing it has to sell is your attention. You might not think of your attention as "valuable," but it is — extremely so. After its IPO, the question of how Facebook is going to make the kind of money it's expected to became one of the central questions of existence. It's shown a remarkable knack for pioneering lots of little ways to sell your attention, one shred at a time. A few months ago, Facebook started allowing users to pay a small fee to make sure more of their friends see their status updates. Your friends can pay Facebook a little bit of money for a little bit of your attention.
Email inboxes have long been black holes of attention; a lot goes in, and almost nothing comes out. You probably read an email and delete it and question what it is you're doing with your life, exactly, before moving on to the next message to be deleted. This is a function, in part, of the fact that practically anyone with your email address can send you a message, not just people you like. Facebook, in its quest to rebuild the inbox, has in fact fixed this problem! It shoves all the stuff you probably don't want to read into a limbo zone where these not-quite-junk messages won't steal your attention.
This is the problem with Facebook selling access to your inbox like this: While Messages still offers a better solution than email in terms of automatically filtering stuff you don't want to see based on social cues, it's worse than what Facebook was already giving us. It is breaking its own answer to the errant message problem, one of its biggest projects over the last year, for a trivial amount of money. And Facebook's message to us is that there is no iota of our attention that it won't figure out a way to sell. Put that in your inbox.