It doesn’t cost anything (other than your time and energy) to use Facebook. That makes it tricky to guess how much the social network is worth to each of its 2 billion users worldwide.
But a new study put an estimated dollar value on Facebook with a handful of experiments: Researchers asked users how much they would need to be paid to leave the ubiquitous networking platform for a day, a week or as long as a year. Those experiments revealed the average person required more than $1,000 to deactivate his or her account for a full year, according to researchers’ study published Dec. 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.
“We know people must derive tremendous value from Facebook or they wouldn’t spend millions of hours on the site every day,” Jay Corrigan, a study author and economics professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, explained in a statement. “The challenge is how to put a dollar value on a service people don’t pay for.”
Facebook users shouldn’t worry about a fee coming any time soon, however.
“If they did that, people would very quickly migrate to some competitor service that would quickly emerge,” Corrigan said, according to Ars Technica. “So I don’t think there’s any way that Facebook is going to be able to capture that money from them.”
Not that Facebook is hurting for money: Even though Facebook is free, its market capitalization was more than $540 billion in May, and it had more than $40 billion in revenue last year, which it primarily makes by advertising to a user base that’s bigger than any country on earth, the authors note.
Researchers from Kenyon, Tufts University, Michigan State University and Susquehanna University worked to determine the value of Facebook to users by performing three auctions in which they asked Facebook users to bid on how much they would be paid to abandon the social network for a period of time. Whoever won each auction would get their money only after proving he or she had deactivated Facebook for the prescribed period of time, researchers said.
An auction involving 122 Kenyon students found the average person would require $4.17 to get rid of Facebook for a day, $13.89 for three days and $37 for a week, researchers said. Extrapolate those prices for a full year, and the average estimated price to not use Facebook falls between $1,511 and $1,908.
An auction at Michigan State — which included 133 students and 138 local adults — found students would need an average of $2,076 to quit Facebook for a year and locals would need an average of $1,139, according to the study.
The third auction was online through the Amazon Mechanical Turk open marketplace, where researchers asked 931 adults how much it would take for them to quit Facebook for a year and got an average answer of $1,921, researchers said.
“Auction participants faced real financial consequences, so had an incentive to seriously consider what compensation they would want to close their accounts for a set period of time and to bid truthfully,” author Sean B. Cash, a Tufts professor, said in a statement. “A number of participants refused to bid at all, suggesting that deactivating Facebook for a year was not a welcome possibility.”
But why use the auction method rather than simply asking people how much they would pay for Facebook?
Facebook is already free, the authors wrote, meaning “we could not ask people how much they would be willing to pay for access to the service. Instead, people bid for how much they would need in compensation to give up using Facebook.”
That sort of auction has been used to price difficult-to-assess goods or qualities before.
“Economists have used these ‘willingness-to-accept’ auctions to assess the value of mundane items such as pens and chocolate bars, but also more abstract or novel items such as food safety,” the authors wrote.
There are a variety of reasons people could set the price of giving up Facebook so high.
“They may start using it as a way to feel connected to a community and feel support and validation from peers, even if in reality it might be taking away from meaningful, interpersonal connections,” said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, according to ABC.
Meanwhile, plenty of people are quitting (or temporarily leaving) Facebook without being paid.
Earlier in December, the NAACP called on Facebook users to boycott the site and its Instagram and WhatsApp platforms in protest, after a Senate report found that Russia-linked accounts used Facebook to influence black voters during the 2016 elections.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the civil rights group, said “the spread of misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community is reprehensible.”
Others have quit the social network over privacy breaches and concerns that Facebook is bad for relationships with family and friends, the Associated Press reports.