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Facebook tests feature to let strangers pay to message you

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Facebook users may soon start seeing more messages in their Inboxes, thanks to a new pilot program that allows users to pay a fee to send personal messages to people with whom they have no direct connection.

Ordinarily, a Facebook user's Inbox will only display messages from friends and people the user might know, such as friends of friends. Messages from other sources end up in a separate Other folder, where they're likely to be overlooked.

"We've heard that messages people care about may not always be delivered or may go unseen in the Other folder," Facebook said in a statement on Thursday, explaining that it has launched the experimental pay-to-message feature to see whether "economic signals" can be used to help determine message relevance.

"Several commentators and researchers have noted that imposing a financial cost on the sender may be the most effective way to discourage unwanted messages and facilitate delivery of messages that are relevant and useful," the company explained.

In other words, if a Facebook user is actually willing to pay to make sure another user sees their message, then the message is probably "important" and deserves to be delivered to the recipient's Inbox, rather than the Other folder.

Conversely, if the message contains spam, hate speech, political rants, unwanted sexual advances, creepy comments about your photos, or is otherwise utter crap, then nobody would ever be willing to pay to make sure it gets through to you. Or that's the theory, anyway.

According to Zuck & Co., examples of when this kind of economic signaling would be appropriate include sending a message to someone you saw speak at a conference, or to send a personal inquiry about a job opportunity.

And what does Facebook think sending such a message is worth? A company rep told El Reg, "We're starting to test at $1 per message, but we'll continue to test to find the optimum price."

For now, the pay-to-send feature is just "a small test" that's being made available to a limited number of users – we asked how many, but Facebook wouldn't say.

What it would say is that for now, the test is limited to US-based senders and recipients only, and that only individuals can participate. Pages, like the ones set up by businesses, cannot pay to send messages to users' Inboxes during the test. The social network has also capped the number of paid messages that a user can receive to one per week.

Facebook declined to say how long the test period for the new feature would last or whether it had plans to expand it to include more users, saying only, "We'll continue to iterate and evolve Facebook Messages over the coming months." ®

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