Tech and Business Pearls

Facebook is a Ponzi Scheme

Now that you know what a Ponzi scheme is, I will tell you how and why Facebook is like a Ponzi Scheme. The argument is similar to how Paul Graham describes that Yahoo was a ponzi scheme in 1998.

Facebook posts huge revenues. In fact, recent reports are that Facebook is very profitable. This boosts both their respect in the world and their valuation. However, these returns, while real, are unsustainable. They exist and are sustained in the same manner that Ponzi schemes are. Facebook is a Ponzi Scheme.

Have you ever bought a Facebook ad? I have. I have talked to many, many people who have. We have spent hundreds, many have spent thousands or even more, experimenting with Facebook ads. They are worthless. Nobody ever looks at them, and nobody ever clicks on them. I just talked to someone who was trying to promote a book. He found it cost him over $100 in ads to sell one book. Moreover, as you increase your ad spending, people get used to the ads and just ignore them. So, your already low click-through rate plummets even further.

People go to Facebook to interact with their friends. It is fundamentally different from the ad platform that is Google. People go to Google to find something they need, possibly ready to buy, which a good percentage of the time can in fact be solved by someone's ad. Facebook ads, on the other hand, annoy users. They yield no real value, and thus no profits.

But, then, how is Facebook so profitable? Are they lying? No. They are growing. More and more people sign up to Facebook, and more and more businesses hear about how many people are on Facebook. It seems like a huge opportunity. TV shows and award-winning movies are made about Facebook.

Because of Facebook's presumed success, many small, medium, and large businesses individually and in turn experiment with Facebook ads. They spend hundreds or thousands or more on Facebook ads. At the end of the first run, they see bad ROIs. They tweak the ads and spend more money and try again. Nothing. So they stop, understanding that Facebook ads are worthless. Almost everyone I've talked to who has actually bought Facebook ads knows this. But, not everyone has bought Facebook ads yet. There are still more and more new businesses finding out about Facebook ads. As they grow, even more businesses give their money to experiment in destined failure.

Eventually, though, and this might take a long time, but it is finite, everyone will have tried Facebook ads and know that they are useless. Eventually, after 10 million businesses have invested $1000 each, and Facebook has earned $10 billion in revenue in total, then they will have run out of new customers and their revenue will dry up. A useless product is never sustainable. I wish I could short Facebook.

Now, it is possible that some extremely niche businesses have found limited utility from ads (for example, BustedTees and social games may be the lucky few). It has been shown, however, that some of the biggest advertisers are huge, outright scams and others have deceptive practices at best. Also, Mark Zuckerberg might have a fit of brilliance and then announce a revolutionary ad platform that somehow actually works on social networks. My guess is not. They haven't yet. What is clear from everyone I know who has advertised on Facebook is that it was a waste of money. Facebook promises big returns on ad spending, but delivers nothing. Yet, their value and growth continues because they can use that money to grow their user-base more and assert profitability (in this sense it's not quite entirely a ponzi scheme, but there is no closer idea). It's possible that they do not even realize that they are like a Ponzi scheme.

That's right, they may not even realize that their ad platform is completely useless because they always get new clients signing up and giving up their offering to the god of web 2.0 hype. They may be blind, as I used to be. They may be truly surprised when the supply of suckers runs dry.

More likely, in the end, they will get teenagers to pay a monthly fee to host all of their party photos. Of course, then the next VC-funded Facebook (just as MySpace killed Friendster, and Facebook killed MySpace, so will NextFB kill Facebook) will offer the same services and be free and take over the "market." The cycle repeats itself.

over 3 years ago on January 18 at 6:34 am by Joseph Perla in technology


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Hi, my business card says Joseph Perla. Former VP of Technology, founding team, Turntable.fm. My first college startup was in the education space. My second was Labmeeting, a cross between Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook for scientists. I dropped out of Princeton (twice).

I love to advise and help startups. My code on Github powers many websites and iPhone apps. I give talks about startup tech around the US and also internationally at conferences in Florence. incubators in Paris, and startups in Budapest.

Twitter: @jperla

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