Posted by: Paul | January 10, 2011

In Credit

I consumed a lot of Sci-Fi as a child. Books, movies, comics, toys. George Lucas, Patrick Tilley and Isaac Asimov were the architects of my childhood. And in many of these fantasy worlds existed a human future culture where monetary financial systems had been expunged in favour of electronic ‘credits’. It occurs to me now that this future of virtual money is almost here – not just the ‘cashless society’ where you’re paid and make payments almost entirely electronically now – but something else entirely, which struck me when standing at the tills in Tesco on Friday morning. Among the usual leaflets for financial products and services was a small display selling gift cards of something I had no idea existed – Facebook Credits.

Gift cards are clearly nothing new. The idea of giving someone a sum of money for exclusive use in a particular shop goes right back through decades of paper vouchers and credit notes, useful in situations where you either don’t want to be so vulgar as to give actual cash as a gift (the very idea! 😉 ), or where you want to be sure the intended recipient doesn’t just fritter away your generosity.

But in recent years, systems of virtual cash have come into being – chiefly, firstly, for use in the videogaming world. Paid-for online games often have extra content for sale through ‘microtransactions’, where you either purchase something new and have it added to your monthly subscription cost, or buy a chunk of ‘points’ with a real-world credit card transaction, and then spend those points in the game buying a new tracksuit for your virtual warrior dwarf.

It’s this last which is interesting to me. Whether it’s Linden Dollars, Gold, Microsoft points or now Facebook Credits, each of these systems of currencies has a rate of exchange to the real world, against real currencies, and is a growing virtual economy in it’s own right. The infamous Second Life for instance, has a virtual economy turning over $567 million USD in 2009, putting it on a par with some of the smaller Caribbean and Pacific Islands!

This is starting to freak me out. Something which is entirely virtual and web-based generating more than other real-world economies, with it’s own fluctuating exchange rate against hard currencies. And with the advent of Facebook credits and the size of Facebook’s user base, will we begin to see the phasing out of actual cash? Cheques, we are told, are already going soon.

Right now, Facebook Credits are only useable within FB to purchase content for applications like Farmville, and so on. But how long before we begin to see its use creep into other areas of the site? When we’ve all become so dependent on FB for our daily communications – it seems to have recently replaced email among certain groups of my friends – will we one day see a pop up window when we attempt to send a message or post one someone’s wall: “I’m sorry. You do not have enough Facebook Credits to perform this action. Click Here to purchase more.”

Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, I’ll be watching those exchange rates for the ‘buy’ signals!

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