The Secret Shame of Social Networking: How Silicon Valley Got Hooked on ScammersS

Silicon Valley pundits like to talk about social media as a potential geyser of cash. What they leave out is that one of the only ways social networks like Facebook, MySpace have done that is joining league with online scammers.

The Valley fad of social network games like Mafia Wars and Farmville disguise old-school scams, Mike Arrington has been demonstrating over at TechCrunch this weekend. High-revenue don of social networking games Zynga, which makes the aforementioned Mafia Wars and Farmville, gets one-third of its revenue from various shady "commercial offers" and lead-generation systems, Arrington reports. Here's how HotOrNot founder James Hong described the social networking cash scene in a TechCrunch comment:

The offers that monetize the best are the ones that scam/trick users.... i'm pretty sure most of the money ended up getting our users hooked into auto-recurring SMS subscriptions for horoscopes and stuff.

Examples, via TechCrunch:

  • "Users are offered in-game currency in exchange for filling out an IQ survey... They are told their results will be text messaged to them... and are texted a pin code to enter on the quiz. Once they've done that, they've just subscribed to a $9.99/month subscription."
  • "Users are offered in game currency if they sign up to receive a free learning CD... The user is told they pay nothing except a $10 shipping charge. But the fine print, on a different page from checkout, tells them they are really getting a whole set of CDs and will be billed $189.95 unless they return them."

There's an entire thriving "ecosystem" devoted to these sort of "deals," the sort of thing that in a different context might just be called a "crime ring." It's a profitable network, at least for the people at the top: Arrington estimates Facebook might be taking in $50 million per year from Zygna alone.

So, social networks are basically turning in to just another snakeoil sales channel in the mold of late-night 1-800 number commercials. Which sucks not only for the marks who've been duped but, ultimately, for Facebook's investors, since taking this sort of easy cash reduces internal pressure to come up with some sort of truly innovative revenue stream.

Not to mention what it does to user trust: Who's going to want to hand over their credit card information or even cell phone number to the likes of Facebook amid all these scams? (Answer: People who passed their "IQ test" with flying colors and a useless $10/month subscription.)