How would you feel if the creators of Facebook, the ubiquitous social-networking entity needing no further introduction, announced that they would start charging users a $9.99 monthly fee?
In fact, no such fees are planned. But a certain inevitability should loom over the concept, given about 400 million potential customers yet untapped. As it is, more and more users daily forfeit their personal information to partake in a myriad of applications, and still others indeed pay to send virtual gifts and obtain re-playable games. A monthly fee — should it replace the site's current credit-based system — might actually save people money.
The real issue, however, is whether we should acquiesce to having monetary values attached to our social lives.
Unfortunately, that notion is hardly novel, especially in the context of the Internet. A good number of us likely sharpened our mastery of emoticons in the chat rooms of America Online, a service as maddeningly slow as it was expensive. Ditto today for dating sites pandering to all flavors of human interaction. Take a site like Facebook, which aggregates all of these desirable functions, and it's actually somewhat surprising that someone didn't slap on a fee years ago.
Moreover, consider what social channels these days aren't fee-based, either literally or practically. While one may walk into a bar or a gym and strike up a conversation, one's access — and consequent gain — seems to leap as one invests, whether in a yoga class or a round of drinks for new acquaintances.
Makes sense, doesn't it? But think about that for a second. Is it not astounding that being social at a conventionally acceptable level may require more than mere self-confidence or will? Why?
Charging a fee for Facebook could also stimulate another acrid development: the privatization of the Internet.
""Privatization?"" you might ask. ""But doesn't pretty much everyone who uses the Internet pay for access through a private telecommunications company?"" Yes, and so privatization already exists to a degree that people largely accept. What I'm talking about is an influence far more enmeshed.
For years, cable and telecommunications companies have been proposing plans that would violate ""net neutrality,"" a concept grounded in allowing payers of equal rates to have equal access to unrestricted online content.
Some plans have advocated allowing the highest-bidding corporation's content to emerge most often in searches. Others would create a hierarchy of users determined by variable monthly fees — the more you pay, the more types of sites you can access, and at greater frequency.
It's not a stretch to say the Internet has unparalleled hold over the way we think and interact with people. Common sense dictates that bottom-line-bent corporations — perhaps in the guise of politicians — will eventually push for ultimate control over this device. Facebook, already an advertisement-laden means of gaining access to diverse forms of information, may provide a useful practice ground for a widespread takeover.
Therefore, if and when Facebook decides to charge, do the responsible thing. Abandon ship. Delete your profile. Send messages first to the people you might otherwise lose contact with and get their phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Go on walks with these people. Invite them to the bar or the gym with your other friends and leave your wallets at home. Linger and tell jokes. Send the message, generally, that you don't buy in.
—Tom Knauer is a first-year law student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.