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Could Facebook's 'Marketplace' make a better Craigslist?

Facebook has announced a new feature called Marketplace that the company hopes will allow users to buy and sell goods with greater convenience. But whether or not the feature will better serve users or prevent fraud isn't clear.

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Facebook has announced a new featured called Marketplace, which allows users to buy and sell items.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/File

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Seeking to play a larger role in the previously rogue buy and sell groups on its platform, Facebook has unveiled a new feature called Marketplace, which could serve as a rival to Craigslist while also boosting revenue for the social media site.

The new feature launched Monday on the site’s mobile app, creating an official platform for the type of business many Facebook users already conducted on the service. Each month, more than 450 million people already access buy and sell groups, both locally and globally, the company said in a news release. That’s just a sliver of the buying, trading, and selling that takes place online as sites such as eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon become vital players in local, national, and global markets. The result has been a revolution in the on-demand economy, bringing sellers and customers who likely would not have crossed paths together in the digital age.

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With Marketplace serving a similar function to various groups that already exist on Facebook, plus other competitors dedicated solely to retail, it’s not entirely clear if the service will satisfy any unmet need in terms of e-commerce, or if it’s a measure tailored to serve the platform itself.  

"Facebook's new Marketplace feature is less about satisfying consumers than it is about doing what Facebook does best: gathering as much information as possible about its users and keeping them on its platform as long as possible," Christine Rosen, the editor of The New Atlantis, a journal focused on the intersections of technology and society, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.

Because the site won't charge users to list items or connect, the main incentive to kickstart such an effort could be largely to keep its users on the platform and to track their buying habits. Facebook has become known for its ability to mine data from its users – a tactic that can help the site generate additional, targeted ad revenue.

For now, the feature has launched exclusively on the Facebook app in the United States, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia, but the service says it plans to expand that reach to other nations, and eventually for a desktop-friendly format. Facebook is focusing its efforts on mobile first, trying in some ways to distinguish itself from established sites by creating a different user experience.

"We saw a lot of people were really just looking at coming to Marketplace without necessarily anything in particular they were looking for," Bowen Pan, Marketplace’s project manager, told The Verge. "They were just on Marketplace to casually browse through. This really mirrors an offline experience where you can go to a Sunday market or maybe the mall. You don’t know exactly what you want but you want to browse."

But just because Facebook is creating a formal venue for these transactions doesn't mean it will act to ensure their authenticity. The company says it won't take action against anyone who scams others or provide safeguards for users who find themselves on the wrong side of a fraudulent transaction. Sites like eBay and Amazon have provided refunds to their users when a seller doesn't hold up to his or her end of the bargain, but sellers have also found themselves the victims of online schemes at the hands of unreliable or dishonest buyers.

Facebook argues that its current format will naturally provide some barriers to fraud. The platform requires users to create profiles with "real names," a controversial guideline that's recently been relaxed after some critics called it discriminatory or even dangerous. Previously, Facebook required people to use their name that appeared on legal documents, arguing that such policies prevent abuse and fraud. But now, users can sign up with a non-legally recognized name if they can explain the reason for it, and if it's a title that many would know them by in other aspects of life.

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The company also says that Marketplace won't facilitate payment or delivery between users.

While a fake Facebook profile could be easier to pick out than a fake Craigslist ad, the feature isn't necessarily a cure-all for anonymity and uncertainty in the online marketplace.

"Facebook is pitching Marketplace like it's a quaint little local store," Dr. Rosen says. "But the best advice for potential users of this new Facebook service might be: Buyer beware."