Facebook Experimenting With Paid “Sponsored Stories For People”

By May 13, 2012

Just a few short weeks from now, Facebook will be a publicly traded company. And you know what investors in publicly traded companies like? Consistently strong, growing revenue numbers. And Facebook’s newest experimental revenue-generating feature will let users pay $2 to feature a story on their friends’ News Feeds. Yep, Facebook is letting you buy popularity, or at least extend your proverbial fifteen seconds at the top of your friends’ News Feeds.

Screen Capture of Facebook’s Highlight Feature

Originally spotted by a New Zealander who reported the story to Stuff, a New Zealand-based technology blog. According to a Facebook spokesperson, Mia Garlick, “We’re constantly testing new features across the site. This particular test is simply to gauge people’s interest in this method of sharing with their friends.” (Note: We think Mia has an awesome name.)

Facebook has been trialling this feature at wide variety of different price points, including free.

We understand that there are several legitimate uses for the feature, like letting more people know that you’re subletting your apartment, have a litter of puppies on offer, or are in need of a bone marrow donor.

But there are a number of problems posed by this new feature, if it gets rolled out to the broader Facebook user base. With any new way to promote the visibility of posts will invariably come spam. Individuals like small business owners, musicians, event promotors, and anyone else who may benefit from more eyeballs on their status updates will utilize the feature for their own ends.

The EdgeRank Algorithm

But a larger issue looms, which is that Facebook’s News Feed ranking algorithms have heretofore been relatively meritocratic in how they place posts on your News Feed. As I mentioned in a post last month, Facebook has done a pretty decent job of statistically modeling friendships, or “affinity” between people, and consistently serves fresh stories from your “closest friends” at the top of your feed.

But its easy to see how the Highlight feature could be misused and could decrease the overall value of the news feed. The Huffington Post said it best:

In a post-Highlight world, the friends who get the most visibility on Facebook wouldn’t necessarily be the most engaging ones, just the ones with some spare cash to spend. Already, it often feels an awful lot like our friends are marketing themselves to us via their social media sharing. Highlight could make those updates even more like advertisements.

Here’s my two cents on this: I really hope this feature doesn’t get released to the broader Facebook population, not only because it can and will be so easily abused, but because it will make Facebook feel like an even weirder and more artificial place than it feels like now. I don’t think the world is ready for this, much less wants or needs a feature like Highlight. Not now, and hopefully not ever.