Facebook promises it's going to stay free, sort of

Maybe it's just inflation-era jitters, but over the past few weeks a rumor has gained traction among web users. The fear was that Facebook, which announced Wednesday that it had reached 200 million registered users, now felt its role in our computing lives secure enough to start charging a membership fee.

Not gonna happen. Sort of. Facebook's CEO, Sheryl Sandberg, gave an interview to Business Week that set the record straight.
"The answer is no, we are not planning on charging a basic fee for our basic services," she said. "That question stems from people thinking we're growing so quickly, we're running out of money. We're growing really quickly, but we can finance that growth. We're not going to charge for our basic services."

Hold on there. Look at the wording. It's not going to charge a basic fee for its basic service. That repeated basic leaves the door open for a new fee-based model, for example, allowing membership to be free but charging micro-payments for certain types of interactions or posts, or the depth of a user's involvement. No plans of the sort have been announced, but the way she couches that emphatic denial in legalese is enough to give one pause, despite the apparent clarity of the denial.

Would Facebook do well if there was a charge for it? It's certainly popular. Facebook posted a nifty animation that illustrates how the service has spread, virus-style, around the world. As the website puts it, if the membership base represented the population of a country, then Facebook would be the fifth largest country in the world, bigger than Brazil, Japan, and Russia (all of which, interestingly, are weak spots in the site's saturation).

But as daily newspapers have discovered to their doom, web users have gotten used to getting nearly everything for free. As much as people love their Facebook, it's a safe bet that a goodly number of them love it for its autonomy and flexibility, and just as quickly as they incorporated it into their social networking lives, they could leave it behind for the next free thing. Whither Napster, whither Friendster?

As one commenter put it when the "would you pay for Facebook" question was put to the readers of our British counterpart side, WalletPop U.K, "The general consensus (amongst us late 20-somethings -- maybe we're just getting old) is that Facebook is a bit 'last year'. I think it would be a big mis-judgement on Facebook's part if it started charging, just when people are going off it anyway..."

So it's a smart thing that Facebook has issued this definitive, kinda-sorta, absolutely-maybe statement. Just like its users, it can go either way in a heartbeat.
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