Facebook’s 27-year-old founder, Mark Zuckerberg, isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as Ben Bernanke, the 58-year-old head of the Federal Reserve. But Facebook’s early adventures in the money-creating business are going well enough that the central bank comparison gets tempting.
Everything started quietly, in 2009, with the experimental launch of Facebook Credits, billed as “the safe and easy way to buy things on Facebook.” Anyone who chipped in $5 from a Paypal account, Visa card or the like, could do the equivalent of changing money on an overseas trip. Voila! — $5 turned into 50 Facebook Credits.
Initially, the Credits-based economy was confined to the virtual world’s trifles. Credits could be spent to buy imaginary gold bars for aficionados of Mafia Wars, or bouquets of virtual flowers for birthday postings on friends’ Facebook accounts. This new form of digital money was cute but essentially useless for mainstream activities.
Vogel has a personal interest in seeing Credits take off. He is co-founder of Plink, a customer-loyalty program in which people earn Facebook Credits by eating at participating restaurants. Plink is just getting started, and no one knows yet how much traction his company ultimately will enjoy. But such uncertainties can’t stifle Vogel’s ebullience. He predicts that the Facebook Credits economy could double every year for the next five years.
Already, Credits looks very rewarding for Facebook, thanks to built-in commissions or transactions fees. Merchants participating in the Credits economy receive 70 cents of every dollar spent on their wares; the other 30% goes to Facebook. That’s in line with the way that Apple Inc. runs its iTunes store. It’s far more lucrative than the 2% to 5% fees associated with credit cards or currency-exchange counters in the traditional economy.
Facebook won’t say how much it’s making from Credits, but the research firm of eMarketer offered up a widely quoted estimate in September. Its tally: $470 million of revenue in 2011, or about 11% of Facebook’s total business. Costs associated with the Credits program are likely to be trivial. So while advertising remains Facebook’s dominant source of revenue, banking looks like an alluring second way of making money — literally.
Edward Castronova, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University, is fascinated by the rise of what he calls “wildcat currencies,” such as Facebook Credits. He has been studying the economics of online games and virtual worlds for the better part of a decade. Right now, he calculates, the Facebook Credits ecosystem can’t be any bigger than Barbados’s economy and might be significantly smaller. If the definition of digital goods keeps widening, though, he says, “this could be the start of something big.”
In the short term, Facebook may choose to move cautiously with its Credits-based economy. Company executives are likely to have their hands full the next few months, trying to manage a successful initial public offering of stock. Moving too aggressively into banking could invite more government regulation than Facebook wants.
Still, Facebook’s buildup of Credits suggests more than just a minor dalliance. Facebook already takes payment for Credits in more than 40 currencies — ranging from the euro to the Vietnamese dong. Exchange rates are adjusted daily. It probably won’t be long until some economist tries to calculate the inflation rate, money-supply velocity or other traditional dimensions of the Facebook economy.
If Facebook at some point is willing to reduce its cut of each Credits transaction, this new form of online liquidity may catch the eye of many more merchants and customers. As Castronova observes: “there’s a dynamic here that the Federal Reserve ought to look at.”