Facebook’s Promote Policy: Annoying And Perhaps Stupid, But Unethical?


I have been wading through the many online complaints about Facebook’s  aggressive policy, begun in earnest back in 2012, of reducing the number of “friends” a Facebook user’s posts reach (by about 85%) and then charging the Facebook user a fee to reach more of them. Frankly, as a less-than-intense Facebook user who necessarily spends most of his web-content time running a blog, I didn’t even pay attention to the “promote” button, and wasn’t even aware of the change. The Facebook revenue-generating move is described here and here, but what happened is pretty simple  and easy to understand. Having sucked a lot of people, groups and businesses into using their free service to reach family, friends, like-minded souls and potential customers, Facebook then changed the rules and is now charging for them to get the same reach that was free for quite a while. Is this unethical?

Some, indeed many, think so. Here is the New York Observor:

“This is a clear conflict of interest. The worse the platform performs, the more advertisers need to use Sponsored Stories. In a way, it means that Facebook is broken, on purpose, in order to extract more money from users. In the case of Sponsored Stories, it has meant raking in nearly $1M a day.”

This is Dangerous Minds, in a widely circulated attack on Facebook called “I want my friends back”:

“It’s perhaps the most understated stick-up line in history, worthy of a James Bond villain calmly demanding that a $365 million dollar ransom gets collected from all the Mom & Pop businesses who use Facebook. How many focus groups do you reckon it took until Facebook’s highly paid marketing and PR consultants finally arrived at such an innocuous phrase for describing information superhighway robbery?”

Robbery? Conflict of interest? A hold-up? Bait and switch? This is the kind of tantrum that shows how easy it is for unscrupulous politicians to use the profit motive, free enterprise and capitalism as cheap scapegoats for every problem under the sun, all the better to build support for a massive, all-powerful government that will make everything right, and ensure that we all have lollipops and rainbows regardless of talent, effort, hard work or the cruel turns of fate.* Facebook created this service millions use for free—how dare the bastards try to make money out of their ingenuity and enterprise? Don’t we all, in a real sense, own Facebook? Shouldn’t we?

Giving away free samples of a product or performing a new service cheaply or at no cost is a perfectly honest, ethical and honorable way to build demand for a business. Charging for all or a portion of that product or service after a market has been created is not merely fair, but inevitable, which all customers who are not fools or freeloaders should recognize long before the bill comes due—that is, if the product or service is worth the money. That, however, is a different issue, and has nothing to do with ethics. It may well be, as Dangerous Minds asserts after it’s made its  ethics complaints, that Facebook’s decision is bad business, and that it will eventually drive its users into the arms of a competitor. Well, that’s the way the market ball bounces: if it happens, Facebook can only blame itself for getting greedy, or rather, trying to make more money than the market will bear. Unless it amounts to malfeasance, negligence or incompetence, that’s not unethical, however. That’s taking a calculated risk and being wrong.

I know some studies have identified a Facebook addiction, but Facebook is not crack. The company has only made its users dependent on their free platform to the extent that naive users—and it is naive–foolishly base substantive plans and investments on the assumption that they will never be asked to pay for a tangible benefit. I’m old enough to remember the debate about “pay TV,” which began with scare commercials telling consumers that the entertainment and news they were now getting free would eventually cost them money. They were, in fact, only stating the obvious. My father used to literally laugh at them. “Anyone who

thinks that the best television service will stay free is an idiot,” he said. “First they’ll charge for the best stuff, without commercials. Then the free programming will either get gradually worse or it will seem that way. Then we’ll need to pay not to have inferior programs with an unbearable number of ads. If people want to avoid it, they need to throw away their TVs.”

I found that I was using the New York Times online content regularly for Ethics Alarms. Then came the paywall, and after throwing a year-long hissy-fit, I realized that there was no good reason why I should have a right to free Times stories, and paid up. I once let my theater company use  my basement as a props storage unit, free of charge. Then it started taking over my house, and I announced that the props had to go. What if I had, instead, offered the option of a monthly fee? Would that have been a dishonest bait and switch? Let me tell you, my life would be a lot easier if I thought I could persuade regular Ethics Alarms readers a puny five bucks a year. The blog at least three hours a day (and night) of my time, seven days a week, and I charge between $150 and $350 an hour to my clients, depending on my work. I doubt very much that anyone is dependent enough on my pearls of wisdom, however, for me to do that; but while it might be stupid for me to try, it would certainly not be unfair or unethical.

By all means, the aggrieved Facebook users should complaint, condemn, rant an bitch, organize boycotts and do everything it can to convince Mark’s Monster that it is shooting itself in its cyber-foot. Saying Facebook is being unethical because it changed the rules to its own game, however, proves only that someone is unfamiliar with the eternal truth: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

* It also encourages supposedly respectable journalists of a leftish bent to write thoughtful sounding pieces like this one, in Slate, in which Matt Yglesias tries to plant the seeds of state-run Communism while never having the guts to mention the word. The only way the society can be “fair” and “just,” argues Matt, is if life’s injustices like disparity in genetic ability and family success have no influence in what citizens attain in life. Gee, and how do we achieve that Nirvana, Matt?

Pointer: Alexander Cheezem

Sources: New York Observer, Dangerous Minds, WSJ


19 thoughts on “Facebook’s Promote Policy: Annoying And Perhaps Stupid, But Unethical?

  1. Ok, first off, what fucking world do you live in, Jack, where Matt Yglesias is a respectable journalist?!?

    Second, this “how dare they make money” bullshit is what happens when we don’t beat children who throw a tantrum in the store because mommy won’t buy them something.

    You pay nothing to have a Facebook account or page – if you want to use it to promote something, you need to fucking give them money.

    People are, at the very base of it, pissed off that the thing they were using to promote themselves or their product (movie, book, blog, band, whatever) has decided that no, in fact, you do have to pay money to advertise something.

  2. Yup, couldn’t agree more. When I first read about the “promote” thing my first thought was, “oh, maybe they finally figured out a way to actually make some money …”. Along with, “well, there’s a surprise.”

    Homonym alert: your father probably didn’t say “through away their TV”.

    • “Homonym alert” made me laugh out loud. Let’s see: possible weasel ways to duck responsibility for an inexplicably dumb typo–

      1. My father doesn’t say anything any more, since he died on my birthday in 2009—thanks for bringing back a horrible trauma.
      2. Actually, dad used to mix up all sorts of words, like fiesta and fiasco.
      3. I was desperately trying to get the post in with a paying gig deadline looming hard—if I could charge the lousy 5 bucks, this wouldn’t happen!

      • I am convinced that the internet and computer keyboards have made typing one of those CNS processes that don’t filter through the spellchecking part of the brain. I make far more of these sorts of typos than I used to writing longhand.

        (There, their, they’re your, and you’re I am really careful about because for some reason those ones make steam come out of my ears. Thankfully neither you nor the commenters here make those errors).

  3. I have been, using the Facebook promote button for months to advertise my business, it has been more effective and cheaper then Newspaper ads, mailings, flyers, and Internet box ads. I have come to the conclusion it is the best bang for the buck. The idea that asking anyone to pay a fee to promote themselves or in my case my buisness is not proper, or ethical, is ludicrous. I have happily ( ok I grumbled the first time! God help me I am frugal spelt C-H-E-A-P, yes frugal) when I saw the customers the posts brought in I was overjoyed, my buisness has been struggling, and facebooks promote has been am awesome tool to much the struggle alittle easier! If I could use it more I would!

    • Amazon turns out to be major money drain in time and monthly fees without the return it promised! Not a single sale during the summer months, and four days setting up the online “store”, and am too busy already in the Fall to attempt it then. However Amazon did try to get me to offer my 50% off deal during my busiest two weeks off the year, which would have bankrupted me. To put in time for iffy returns, so I am hesitant to try anything associated with Amazon. Will look into it though. As a sales platform though most of my Products have industry price controls so online retailers can not undercut the brick and mortar stores. This means I as a merchant, I am bound by my contract to sell these items at the same price as everyone else. Unfortunately there are also loads of knock off products being offered that are poor quality copies. I get more customers coming in at Halloween because the costume the ordered on the internet was not what they expected. Often it is a poor copy of one of the better pieces I have in store, and they leave my store happy!

  4. When I saw businesses all start to use FB for ads and offers, trying to drum up targeted lists, of COURSE they should charge for that, as it’s supplementing or replacing print ads. Now I’m not so sure if the same pruning algorithms should be involved for personal accounts like a fraternity or hobby group. I’d hate to not hear about a meeting for a 25th reunion as that’s not a business. It might be too much for a small and struggling business that doesn’t have a large list (knotted yak blankets?) but that is a matter of scaling not a difference in principle.

    If you don’t like the rules you don’t have to play there.

  5. One thing that strikes me is they hypocrisy of the FB critics… the substance of their complaint seems to be this: “How dare they charge me a fee to promote my FOR PROFIT business! They should help me make my profits for free! Everybody has a right to free profits! Except Facebook, they have no rights to profits at all! Capitalists of the world unite (except Facebook and other companies that I don’t like)!”

  6. I felt the same way when Hulu increased the number of commercials at each break from 1 to 3 or 4, or when YouTube added commercials. Sure I was inconvenienced and wished they hadn’t done that, but if that’s what keeps the service I use online, well, so be it. Then I was always mildly nauseated by the number of entitled jerks whining about how they were being ripped off somehow.

  7. As I’ve said over and over threw (no wait . . . “through”) all the changes, all the security issues, all the ads, all the content-ownership issues, all the on-the-fly changes…

    YOU are NOT Facebook’s customer. The people who buy the the marketing information from Facebook’s data-mining are Facebook’s customers.

    So use the free service, or don’t. But don’t make any noise about being “always right.” You aren’t entitled to anything.


  8. The guy created facebook while a student at Harvard.

    Whoever was paying his tuition, be it Mom and Dad, or a scholarship or a loan, is who paid for facebook at the time.

    Later it was investors, then advertisers joined the mix.

    Facebook COSTS money to run. In no way could the users assume it was a magically operating service. That Facebook realizes that it’s been benefitting other business’s profits, implies to me that Facebook’s backers (the investors and the advertisers) may have wised up and protested “hey, why the hell are we giving free stuff to our competitors???”

  9. Does facebook still have the ‘poke’ feature?

    If it does, that’s weird. Poking people in real life is odd… and the internet makes everything creepy a little creeper, so an online poke?


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