Facebook Paying Users For Ad Views: The Good, The Bad, and The Psychologically Ugly

Facebook will start paying users to watch some ads, but the outcomes could be more twisted than they realize.

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Online video ads can be a painfully disruptive experience. And one that users of free web networks are generally loath to go through. So last week, Facebook engineered a perhaps ingenious solution to pay users to watch ads, redeemable at one of their addictive online games or their brand new group coupon service. However, as many professional athletes come to realize, rewarding behavior that would otherwise be done for free can backfire: It induces cheating, dependence, and a distaste for something they once loved.

For a social networking site that was built on the idea of free, paying users could have disastrous consequences. For payed views more generally, there's an up and a downside: It could have the unintended consequence of eliminating entertaining ads, but might get rid of those pesky "slap the monkey" ads.

Motivation: So Simple It's Complicated

Basketball great Bill Russel lamented in his memoirs,

"I remember that the game lost some of its magical qualities for me once I thought seriously about playing for a living...Whenever I walked on the court I began to calculate how this particular game might affect my future. Thoughts of money and prestige crept into my head. Over the years the professional game would turn more and more into a business."

The mind has limited attentional real estate, and the beachfront property in the forefront often accounts for our driving emotions. Rewarding behavior that would ordinarily be done for free "crowds out" our feelings of enjoyment and replaces it with a sinister dependence on reward, whether that be for school grades or commission-based pay.

Famed psychologist Edward Deci of the University of Rochester, and spotlight researcher in The New York Times bestseller, Drive, tells Fast Company that rewards "change the relationship" between people and the activities they enjoy doing for free. "Once you begin rewarding them, they start to see it as something they do to get the reward." He continues, "Doing the behavior becomes dependent on the reward...now they won't do the activity unless they continue to get rewards."

With a scarcity model of attention in mind, what might be the consequencs of paying viewers for ads? (For a review of research, check out this stellar animated talk of Daniel Pink.)

The Ugly

One pleasant promise of the social Internet was an arms race in entertainment by advertisers seeking ever more viral videos. The Old Spice guy became an instant classic, Nike's World Cup ad brought the intensity of soccer fandome home, and even airlines competed over the coolest safety videos. Every day could be the Super Bowl.

Paying users to watch ads that they would otherwise watch and share for free would, psychologically speaking, be counterproductive. Sure, the first paid user to watch it might get a chuckle and pass it along, but the recipient may feel entitled to pay before watching. And, unless Old Spice executives wanted to mortgage their jetliners to pay for a millions of people who watched their brilliant ads, the last thing they want is potential viewers expecting pay.

The consequences for Facebook itself could be catastrophic. Countless users spend their Friday nights watering virtual strawberries in FarmVille—even more might use their new coupon service. The last thing they want is users dreading the number of times they have to log in and watch ads to buy that new-fangled virtual product they've been eyeing. It replaces enjoyment with boredom, anxiety, and resentment. For now, paid ads are a tiny experiment hidden under a rock on planet Facebook, but expanding on paid experiences could readily bulldoze the way users see the social network as recreation.

The Good

Sometimes, the cheapest way to cut through noise is to be the loudest piece of static. Those annoying "slap the monkey" ads exploit our evolutionary reflex to attend to loud, flashy objects for its own nefarious low-mortgage-rate ends. In response, ad-hiding browser extensions, such as Adblock Plus, seek to outmaneuver the seizure-inducing flashiness. The continued cat-and-mouse game between brands and users is an inevitable war fueled by the despressingly low click-thru rates on banner ads.

Paying users to watch ads firmly reestablishes the quid pro quo relationship of free content. Information has been free for so long, the implicit contract has become psychologically buried, so much so that The New York Times had to wage an all-out war against users devising loopholes through their pay wall.

Paid ads is a treaty: Stop the torrent of ever more flashy ads for guaranteed attention and free services.

The Bad

"When you incentivize outcomes, there's a tendency for people to take the easiest route to get that outcome, and lots of times the easiest route is something like cheating," warns Deci. Such behavior should be a real concern for Facebook, given the frequent viewing necessary to make .10 cent increments payoff. After a few ads, no doubt many users will want to accelerate the payment schedule (or waste less of their time); they'll find habitual ways to avoid ads: click ad, switch tabs, wait 35 seconds, return. So long as the personal algorithm works the same each time, it's more convenient to dodge than to watch.

Potential Solutions

Rewards don't trigger dependence because of the prize itself, but the salience of the prize. "For this effect to happen, you've got to have it set up in such a way that you come to see the reward as the reason you're doing the activity," explains Deci. Money and internal motivation peacefully co-exist in the minds of countless individuals who enjoy their jobs. The trick is to not make tasks "contingent" on payment, just like a salary, where money gets deposited in an account regardless how they perform on an individual task and long after the task is completed. It's the constant calculation that kills interest.

Second, a bit of propaganda about the pay-per-action system has also been shown to "immunize" against reward dependence. Dr. Beth Hennessey found that in one experiment, children who viewed a video of peers talking about rewards and their genuine enjoyment of the task itself were not as negatively affected by rewards. In other words, Facebook could pepper in some videos of fellow FarmVille addicts talking about all the great stuff they bought with virtual credits, but also include how they really love milking virtual cows on a three-day weekend.

To date, no one has found a sure-fire solution to the online advertising Rubik's Cube. Squeezing users' attention for a cheap view is one way to go, but it's a dangerous game.

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Brooks Elliott]

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