Image One

Should I be pleased that  I’ve been selected by Facebook to have the news feed permanently fixed to top news? 

Does it mean Facebook thinks that I only need to bother myself with the sort of people who are so interesting, that lots of other people are commenting about what they write?

Or have the 1984 throwbacks realised they can squeeze more cash out of us by watching what we do when they encourage, er force, us to only read the stuff that other people are already talking about?

Apparently, this change to the way that people read their friends’ status updates will happen to everyone in the end. It doesn’t completely silence my less vocal friends, just makes their words more difficult to find.

With a change to the way I currently use the website, I can get around this and browse people’s status updates on a one-by-one basis. But that increases the time it takes to use the “free and always will be” website in the way that I wish to.

In my opinion, it has implications for the definition of the word ‘free’, its child ‘freeware’ and a reminder that every free lunch needs paying for somewhere along the line.

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Consider another example: the spyware software that is ‘free’ for the basic version, with a paid for premium version available.

That’s fine, until you realise that the free version is useless after about 30 minutes as the update link has been disabled. What’s the point of spyware protection if it can’t be updated? In order to update the software with the latest protection without handing over money, the software needs to be uninstalled and reinstalled to get the right protection. Again, this increases the time it takes to use free software.

According to Wikipedia:

“software classified as freeware is either fully functional for an unlimited time with no cost, monetary or otherwise; or has basic functions enabled at no cost, with a fully functional version available as commercial or shareware”

It’s the “monetary or otherwise” bit I struggle with. I’m wondering if the classification of free needs extending in the minds of users.

During research I have led throughout my UX career, users rarely consider the non monetary aspects of free. The idea of not being charged for the things we use is all many people see. However, it is a growing trend for firms to make money by charging users in ways that are not immediately apparent to the customer.

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Consider the budget airlines which openly admit their business model
relies on creating goods and services for users to buy during their
end-to-end flight experience.

The international flight may be the price
of a cab across London, but in return we need to accept a product that
is more difficult to use, such as inconvenient airports or limited
luggage allowance. So in exchange for something with attractive up-front charges, the
overall cost to the customer in time, money and user experience can be much higher.

Going back to Facebook and the fixed top news setting, I see this as an example of selling improved user experience to the highest bidder. Advertisers know that users are like water, and flow along the path of least resistance. It’s a win-win situation for the corporates.

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In scenario one, users have the top news setting. They have an easier
user journey and compensate the advertisers by interacting with top
news. This tells organisations more about ourselves, revealing corporate
information that is more valuable to sell on.

This allows organisations
to target their sales message, and sell us things more effectively, taking more money from us in the long run.

The richer marketing data we reveal using the top news setting means that we can be sold to in a more persuasive way, which creates
potential for a higher buying price. The economists would describe it as shifting the demand curve up.

In scenario two, the decline in user experience leads to users being on the site longer, ultimately being more likely to be sold things via Facebook’s banner ads. Either way, ‘free’ translates to either paying more in the long term, buying more in the medium term, or investing your own time to create more valuable banner ad space for Facebook in the short run. Clever.

Shouldn’t they be paying us?

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Image One: photo credit: qwghlm via Flickr.

Image Two: photo credit: gemb1 via Flickr.

Image Three: photo credit: kudumomo via Flickr.

Image Four: photo credit: dale_ellerm via Flickr. 

Image Five: photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/ via Flickr.