Facebook and the Vegas-ization of the Internet

What happens in Vegas, no longer stays in Vegas - soon it will be all over the Internet. The 24/7 casino mentality that you only used to find along the Vegas Strip is coming to a social network near you. Within the UK, Facebook is already hard at work, making sure that online gambling will become a staple of your online social networking experience, alongside other virtual time sinks like FarmVille. Instead of spending your virtual cash on FarmVille farm animals, why not drop some real cash on Bingo Friendzy and meet some new friends within Facebook's new online Bingo Hall?

On August 7, Bingo Friendzy - a "social" form of Bingo that you play with your "friendz" - became the only game on Facebook where users can win real cash prizes. For now, Bingo Friendzy can only be played by users 18 and older who live within the UK and who access Facebook via a computer located within the UK. Yet, it's easy to see how the initial success of Bingo Friendzy within the UK could lead to Internet gaming becoming "socially" acceptable just about anywhere. (Check out the Bingo Friendzy Facebook page - "fans" are already asking when the game will be available in Canada and Brazil.) In just two weeks, Bingo Friendzy signed up 20,000 users - thanks in part to little online ads that play up the "social" side of gambling, complete with bright colors and cute little Moshi Monsters that appeal to teens and tweens.

What's not to like for Mark Zuckerberg when he's presumably collecting a cut of every gamble within the social network?

What's hilarious is the way that Facebook refers to Bingo Friendzy - company gaming reps are calling it a "leisure activity" and "game" that you happen to enjoy with your friends online. What could possibly go wrong with that? Gamesys, the developer that created Bingo Friendzy, has even included two safety features within the game that it says will limit gambling on Facebook -- "self-help tools" for gambling addiction and the ability to establish self-imposed spending limits. However, as anyone who's ever been to Vegas knows, it's far too easy to blow past any and all spending limits when the "big win" is just a game away.

For months, both Facebook and Zynga (the leading maker of online social games) have been chomping at the bit to introduce online gambling to the loyal masses of 1 billion Facebook fans. The goal is to make online slot machines a reality by 2013, followed shortly thereafter by real table games like online poker. Zynga has already snatched up an online poker provider in preparation and has started lobbying Washington for rule changes that would open up the regulatory regime for online gambling. You can see the pattern here - establish a baseline with something harmless-sounding like Bingo, then progress to online slots (still harmless, right?), and then move into online poker (which is really just a sport, right ESPN?). It's the classic gateway drug scenario, being played out in front of us on Facebook.

Zuckerberg is known to be in on the make for new revenue opportunities in the wake of an IPO flop, and is there anything more money than online gambling? The new casino in New York City next to JFK Airport now rakes in $1 billion a month in slots machines revenue - can you imagine how much Facebook could make if it could turn your laptop into a slot machine for an hour or so a day? 

At the end of the day, maybe it's all just part of a greater Vegas-ization of our digital culture, where everything has become a giant game and everything seems "safer" if it's happening online. We live in an era when failing muncipalities resort to the lottery to fund their budget shortfalls and all of us, to one degree or another, believe in the myth of the "instant win." Even your company 401(K) plan is essentially just a sophisticated little bet on the stock market, right? OK, I get it. But it would be a shame if the Internet - one of the greatest technological achievements of our era - ends up becoming nothing more than a giant casino, filled with blinking ads and endless entertainment options - you know, just like Vegas.

image: Welcome to Las Vegas / Shutterstock

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