Mark Zuckerberg can no longer claim that Facebook is free

Ben Barokas
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Facebook Hosts Conference On Future Of Social Technologies
"Put your hand up if you said Facebook would always be free" (Source: Getty)

For a business that began as a dorm-room start-up, no one can doubt Facebook’s dominance within the digital world.

Valid or not – claims that the US presidential election result was swayed by fake news circulated on the platform illustrate the network’s extraordinary degree of perceived influence.

It’s been an interesting time for the social media giant, earlier this year Facebook entered into the ad blocking debate and took a stand for the future of content compensation by announcing its intention to circumvent ad-blocking software.

“It's free and always will be” may be the strapline on Facebook’s sign-up page but the platform’s decision to show ads to all users – even in the presence of ad block software – calls this statement into question. Back in 2010, when Mark Zuckerberg asserted Facebook was a free service, he neglected to mention the need for alternative compensation in the form of advertising.

Facebook made a significant error in leaving the relationship between access to its services and viewing advertising implicit. Its users never provide monetary compensation but they do – perhaps unbeknown to them – pay with their eyeballs, as they view ads and sponsored posts for which the platform charges advertisers.

While it is hard to imagine ad blocking bringing about the social media giant’s demise, the practice does present a real risk to its revenue engine. In fact, Facebook credits the decision to circumvent ad blockers for its 18% boost in Q3 desktop ad revenue. If the ad-blocking situation is not resolved, the diverse and rich source of content, services, and tools we’ve become accustomed to across the online ecosystem is endangered.

But ad blocking itself is merely a plot device in a much wider digital saga. In works of fiction a MacGuffin is a nondescript object that is critically important to the characters in the story and drives the plot line, but is inconsequential to the audience (think Rosebud in Citizen Kane). Ad blocking – along with Facebook’s landmark decision – will prove to be the MacGuffin in the story of online content’s evolution.

Ad blocking is simply setting the stage for a new phase of the internet. The next chapter – in a plot accelerated by Facebook – will bring a move towards content compensation. With this model the value exchange between content and advertising will be explicit, and consumers will be aware and engaged in decisions on how they wish to pay for the digital services they consume, via advertising, currency or other alternative methods.

As the dialogue around ad blocking continues, Facebook and other influential digital publishers must think carefully about the way they position their services to users, and think long and hard before they again call something “free.”

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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