It’s been a rough few months for the technology industry. Stock prices have plummeted. Meta, Amazon, Google, Spotify, and Twitter have all laid off a sizable chunk of their workforce (the list goes on, too). Everybody is talking about how ChatGPT and other generative-AI chatbots are role-playing as Skynet, and the older tech giants are feeling out of step. But whereas Google and Microsoft are deep into the chatbot arms race, Meta looks like a late-aughts tech dinosaur.
It’s time to shake things up, to turn the ship around. To innovate. Meta’s big, new idea: Charge people for basic support features and … a blue check mark.
On Sunday, Facebook and Instagram announced Meta Verified, a subscription service that will give benefits to people who pay a fee and confirm their identity. The perks include algorithmic boosts to posts, human customer service, and added protection from impersonation. Meta’s paid verification follows Elon Musk’s controversial decision last year to include its famous blue check marks in its Twitter Blue subscription package. Not long after Twitter’s decision, Tumblr launched its own paid verification plan, which was initially meant as a joke mocking Musk’s ham-fisted business strategy but ended up increasing the company’s revenue. Netflix is also looking to squeeze extra money out of its viewers with its plan to end password sharing across different households.
Taken together, the vibe feels a bit like trying to use a familiar service and getting hit with a pop-up that says, “Thank you for using Web 2.0. Your free-trial period has ended!”
I am not a Meta power user, and I certainly won’t be paying for a blue check mark. Still, the Verified announcement depressed me. It felt at first like Meta had gone full Spirit Airlines, that paying for customer service is akin to ponying up for glasses of water or any carry-on larger than a purse.
But the Spirit comparison isn’t quite right. Spirit has always operated as a budget experience, intended to undercut the competition at the expense of creature comforts. Facebook, though, is following the trajectory of the airline industry writ large. It is a once-revolutionary service that, over time, has transformed into something more soul-sucking. And although Meta still churns out tens of billions in profit each year, real signs of trouble are on the horizon. Just like the airline industry before it, when faced with a rocky economy, Meta decided to nickel-and-dime its users by asking them to pay for things one should reasonably expect to come standard. (A Meta spokesperson said in an email that the feature is “specifically focused on the top requests we get from up-and-coming creators. In this case, because we know creator accounts have or are looking to grow a large following, this then puts them at an increased risk for impersonation attempts.”)
Though it feels like they’ve been a scourge since the birth of aviation, checked-bag fees were introduced in 2008. According to a 2013 profile, an Australian consultant named John Thomas came up with the idea in response to rising fuel prices that threatened to sink the airline industry. United Airlines was the first to charge a $25 fee for a flier’s second bag. It took only a few weeks for the rest of the big airlines to follow suit. Within three months, some airlines started charging fees for all non-carry-ons. The industry made billions.
Nobody seriously thinks that Facebook or Twitter will rake in anything remotely comparable (one report suggests that Twitter has only 290,000 Blue subscribers worldwide, which comes out to roughly $2.4 million a month). It’s easy enough to conclude—and people certainly have—that Meta is just out of ideas after its lackluster pivot to a legless metaverse. But the problem seems deeper: Meta doesn’t even know what kind of company it is anymore.
Meta may very well think that it provides an essential service, just like an airline. Facebook and Instagram certainly offer convenience via sheer scale—massive numbers of people exist there, even if in some zombified-account form. Indeed, an increased focus on verification and identity confirmation makes sense, especially if we are hurtling towards a future where machines will convincingly sound like humans. But customer service and protection from impersonation ought to be universal; perhaps such digital courtesies are going extinct, just like the complimentary in-flight meal on a cross-country trip.
But Meta is obviously not an airline; the services it provides aren’t essential and, despite its ubiquity, its users are not captive. If anything, its flagship platform is hemorrhaging cultural relevance. Facebook itself feels like a place strewn with recycled memes, where a common sight is once-popular fan pages inexplicably turning into multilevel-marketing-scheme accounts for CBD products. Who beyond those scammers would pay for an algorithmic boost?
Nor is Meta behaving like its tech forefathers, who gradually got us to pay for digital items. In 2013, I spoke with Paul Vidich—a former Warner Music Group executive who was involved in negotiations with Steve Jobs to start selling songs on iTunes in the early 2000s for 99 cents each. Vidich told me then that he’d agonized over the correct price point but figured that the combination of a huge music library, a one-click interface (with a credit card already on file), and a cheap price might wean the Napster generation off its freeloading. “It’s something you don’t have to think twice about before buying,” he said.
Vidich was right, and people purchased tens of billions of songs in the pre-streaming era. Apple got people to shell out because it brought the record store into our home. And, after a period of piracy, it allowed guilty consciences to compensate artists, however slightly, at a price that was hard to turn down. But Meta Verified isn’t really offering ease or … much of anything, really. Instead, it’s asking users to pay for services that keep them safer on its own platforms—a bit like the Mafia tactic of paying for “protection.”
Meta is a company in crisis. For the past decade, its core business has been defined by companies it purchased—namely Instagram and WhatsApp—and a string of desperate pivots, many of which led nowhere. The running theme behind each of these attempts at innovation is a false confidence born of the company’s immense scale. It has always struggled to see itself the way outsiders do, which is perhaps why leaders like Mark Zuckerberg thought Facebook could revolutionize mobile phones or become a leader in workplace-communication software. The company believed that, after years of terrible publicity and privacy scandals, what people wanted was for Facebook to reimagine the internet in its own image through the metaverse. It did not seem to realize that one of the biggest problems with the metaverse is Meta itself.
But Meta can take some solace in knowing that it’s not alone. The end of Big Tech’s free-trial period marks the waning days of a specific internet era. Perhaps, as my colleague Ian Bogost has argued, it’s the end of the social-media era. Maybe it’s merely the end of social-media companies as culturally ascendant institutions, and the beginning of our thinking of them as failed states or corrupt utilities—the new cable companies.
Either way, it’s hard to look at the hype and energy around the commercial-AI boom and compare it with the stagnant air that surrounds platforms like Twitter and Facebook. There’s an odd juxtaposition between our excitement and fear over sentient AI and the arrival of almost infinite synthetic media and the desperation of the internet’s old guard asking us to pay to confirm our identity. This feels like a year when an unsettling and unpredictable future may arrive—whether we want it to or not. I just wouldn’t bet on it coming from Meta.