Dec. 20, 2012 at 4:03 PM ET
A pair of updates to Facebook's messaging feature is sure to ignite controversy over the holidays. While the improved filtering Facebook has implemented will be welcomed, an experiment allowing strangers to pay $1 to give their message high priority will likely cause serious unrest.
The updates are part of continuing efforts to expand and monetize Facebook messaging, which means a change from being just a way for friends on the social network to chat to a more universal and easy communication platform. To that end, Facebook has to allow and control for the possibility of strangers contacting users.
In some cases, as Facebook wrote Thursday, this could easily be something a user might want: A message from someone you met on a night out or at a conference, but whose contact details you failed to get, for instance. On the other hand, it could also be a fake account or an ex, whom nobody would want to hear from.
Facebook has updated filtering to have just two major settings: "Moderate" and "Strict." Moderate will allow more messages from friends of friends, groups, and people who might be otherwise related. "Strict" will strain out all but close contacts.
Messages from people you aren't closely connected to usually end up in the "Other" folder. But Thursday's update would allow the sender to spend a dollar to have it appear in the regular inbox.
Facebook's justification is that while that person, say, who's a missed connection from the bar will be happy to spend a buck to say hello, bad actors like bots and spammers won't find such a cost worthwhile — they'd have to spend thousands to get it to enough people.
Put that way, it sounds reasonable enough — but the update inarguably allows strangers to spend money for priority access to your inbox. On a basic level, users may find this undesirable, even though they can always delete messages or mark them as spam, as before.
Facebook describes this as an "experiment," and is currently playing with how it works. For instance, only one message per week could be promoted into any user's Inbox, which would prevent celebrities from being inundated. And brands and pages would be prohibited from using the feature, which prevents its being used just for advertising.
You can read Facebook's announcement of the feature at its blog post here, and the new filtering options should be appearing for users soon.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.