What do they do in Ouagadougou? They do what you do? Or at the very least, they want to. While folks in Ouagadougou may love you on YouTube and want to upload their faces to Facebook, they can’t afford to pay for the stuff that’s advertised there. And that’s a problem for Online businesses that are hoping to profit from the popularity of their content. While Facebook struggles to generate revenue in well-off places, Ouagadougou is just one example of the struggle in not very well-off places.
In areas of high unemployment and low incomes, where people have lots of idle time and little money, there is much demand for entertaining, free content. Free YouTube videos are watched and watched, as one provider described it. Such massive watching eats up bandwidth which is rumored to be very costly in far flung places with dial-up services. As someone put it, a megabit of bandwidth in the U.S. costs a bit more than a case of Coke, but in “emerging markets” it costs the equivalent of a few big, pint-sized cases of beer.
That’s a lot of beer for a site like Facebook where 850 million photos and eight million videos are uploaded each month. But the cyber café crowd in Ouagadougou and any number of poorer cities isn’t likely to yield any significant ROI for Internet businesses. So Facebook is experimenting with lower quality offerings such as fewer features for their 200 million overseas members. Others are blocking their services altogether. What’s the point of spending money to deliver content where it won’t payoff?
Blocking content to those who are unlikely to generate revenue presents an ethical dilemma for business owners. Some are even criticized for admitting their feelings of guilt over pulling the plug on the poor. While they may want to contribute to some greater good – if social networking and videos are actually socially good – they also want to do well. And it’s not easy to focus on doing good if you’re not also doing well. Did someone say it’s the thought that counts?