We are cheap bastards, the lot of us. We don't want to pay for content. The New York Times puts up a pay wall that's leaky by design, so nonpaying readers can share stories they like with other people and articles pop up telling people how to take advantage to read all the newspaper online for free. The underlying conceit being that if you can get it all for free, no matter how valuable it is to you, you're a sucker if you actually pay.
But if we won't pay with cash to see stuff we like, there are other ways that publishers and marketers can extract value from our attention: By turning us into advertisements.
The latest experiment in micro-monetization is putting a "Like wall" between readers and content. The New Yorker tried a single-article trial last week for nonpaying readers; it made an essay by Jonathan Franzen available for "free" to those who would "Like" the magazine on Facebook. As Mashable notes, Self Magazine, Jennifer Lopez, and Lil Wayne have also put content behind Like walls
There are other pieces of content like this. Electronics manufacturer Denon is coming out with new models. The company promises Facebook users a peek at the new gear, but only if they "Like" Denon's page. The reputation site Honestly.com has an A/B test running (in other words, not all users see it), where registered users don't see their own ratings until they "Like" the site.
The idea, in these and other tests, is obviously to get people to tacitly recommend products on Facebook, in exchange for access to the online services. In some cases (like Denon), users are asked to Like something without fully knowing what it is. Call it the clueless vouch.
It's got to stop, for two reasons.
First, it's bad for Facebook and its users. It cheapens the Like. People are going to start mistrusting their friends' recommendation since there is a growing likelihood that a Like for a product was given in consideration for some online trinket.
Second, it's unfair. The value of a Like is a highly variable form person to person. My Like may be worth a bit to a marketer, given that I have a few hundred Facebook friends in a nice demographic. Other users are worth considerably more. And some much less. So how come I have to give up the same piece of my integrity as everyone else? Shouldn't I be able to Like something in proportion to my worth as a shill? And how would that work? (Answer: It wouldn't.)
I know there are thousands of marketers trying to figure out how to get their services to "go viral." Everyone wants their service to spread like FarmVille invitations. But forcing virality on online users could devalue the whole system. Not only that, but as Honestly CEO Peter Kazanjy told me, "Facebook controls the social distribution channels, so...they're the central bank." Do you really want to give Facebook more control over your message?
There's a place for honest Likes. People should be able to Like a product the same way they voluntarily wear a brand T-shirt. But let's try to avoid turning people into cheap billboards for fake recommendations. It will not end well.