SALT LAKE CITY — Facebook is free to users, but that doesn't mean they don't value it.
Researchers from Kenyon College, Michigan State University, Susquehanna University and Tufts University measured just how much people value Facebook by paying them to stop using it.
Their research, published in peer-reviewed science journal "Plos One" in December 2018, showed that on average, Facebook users required more than $1,000 to quit using the social media network for one year.
Participants were asked to take part in an auction in reverse, where instead of bidding to purchase an item, they bid the amount they would need in compensation to give up Facebook. It was not hypothetical. Winners were actually paid and required to deactivate their accounts, knowing that researchers would be checking periodically throughout the promised time period to ensure they had not reactivated.
The experiment was conducted anonymously, so participants were not aware of the amounts others were bidding.
Across three separate experiments, which included a sample of college students, a nonstudent community sample and an online sample recruited using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, the average value users placed on Facebook ranged from $1,139 to $2,076 a year.
At a time when the body of research on social media's effects on mental and physical health is rapidly expanding, this study puts a number on how attached people are to the world's largest social network with more than 2 billion global users.
"This is important because it speaks not necessarily to addiction, but how much attachment we have to these free services," said Saleem Alhabash, associate professor of public relations and social media at Michigan State University, who worked on the study. "They have nestled into the fabric of our lives in a way that keeps us going. They become an extension of who we are, our lives and how we conduct our daily routines — as much as brushing our teeth and drinking a cup of coffee in the morning."
After one experiment, a participant approached researcher Jay Corrigan, professor of economics at Kenyon College, and explained why she would have required hundreds of dollars to deactivate her account. She said she used Facebook to correspond with her boss and worried if she didn’t have access to the app, she would lose her job.
Researchers found the more people posted status updates and used Facebook for events, the higher monetary value they placed on the social network. While the average bid was more than $1,000, the median bid for one of the experiments was $200. So while half of participants bid less than $200, the average was pulled upward by some people who valued Facebook much more.
Corrigan and Alhabash had few expectations going into the experiment but were intrigued by the results. They agreed Facebook has many positive uses, but that it is possible to become too dependent.
"Like anything, it is possible to use it too much," Corrigan said, who personally decided to deactivate his Facebook account after the experiments.
"I’m not anti-Facebook. I just know it’s something people spend a lot of time with. There are not enough hours in the day," he said.
Alhabash, on the other hand, said he is guilty of checking Facebook every hour or so, and has been tempted to check his notifications during meetings or moments of boredom.
"Connecting with distant family and friends, seeing their pictures and having reminders of their existence ... is something great social media and Facebook are providing us," said Alhabash, who has been studying Facebook for the past 11 years. "But in a social, physical sense, people are disconnected because we treat our devices and social media and apps as security blankets. Communicating with strangers is hard, and it's so much easier to use a device than to have face to face conversations."
While the study was published just last month, the data was collected in 2015 and 2016, prior to several major Facebook scandals, including data-leaks to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, Netflix and Spotify.
It is unclear whether these events have affected how much people value Facebook. Despite the negative publicity surrounding the Cambridge Analytica revelations in mid-March 2018, Facebook added 70 million users between the end of 2017 and March 31, 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Alhabash said these scandals are bound to influence some people, but not the majority. While people generally understand that their private information is vulnerable, they don't completely comprehend the risks. That skews the cost-benefit calculation people make when they ask themselves, "What am I going to lose by being off Facebook, and what am I gaining by being on Facebook?" said Alhabash.
"People are willing to exchange some privacy to be a part of what is the world’s largest social network by a large margin," Corrigan said.
According to Alhabash, Facebook's long-term popularity will not depend on a crisis or scandal, but on how Facebook handles the situation and what guarantees they are willing to make to live up to users' expectations.
Facebook reached a market capitalization of $542 billion in May 2018. At 2.2 billion active users in March 2018, this suggests a value to investors of almost $250 per user — less than one-fourth of the average annual value Facebook users reported in the study.36 comments on this story
So why doesn't Facebook charge for the service?
According to Corrigan, the value of Facebook lies in the fact that it is the world's largest social network. Even though many would be willing to pay for the service, if Facebook started charging for access, a large number would quickly move to another social network. Once Facebook was no longer the biggest, even the people originally willing to pay wouldn't be anymore, he said.
"People derive value from Facebook, but I don’t think Facebook can capture that," said Corrigan.