Here’s an excerpt from an interview held in 1970 when TV advertisement culture was picking up.
“The product of television, commercial television, is the audience. Television delivers people to an advertiser. […] In commercial broadcasting, the viewer pays for the privilege of having himself sold. It is the consumer who is consumed. You are the product of TV. You are delivered to the advertiser, who is the customer. He consumes you. The viewer is not responsible for the programming. […] You are the product of TV.”
Fast forward five decades and the scenario hasn’t changed. The old adage “If it’s for free, you are the product” still holds true.
Just as written in the excerpt above, the advertisers are the real clients and we, the freeloading netizens, are being sold. And it’s not just about free.
People Need To Understand That They Are The Product Of Companies Like Facebook And Google And Not The Customer.
Everyone knows what Facebook is, right? Ask your grandma and she’ll tell you that “it’s a place where you meet old friends.”
But when the Facebook executives have important conferences and talk over their policies, they don’t discuss how they can help Ethel meet her old friends. No, they talk about how to milk Ethel’s social presence and make more money out of it.
When you use Facebook to make friends, who pays for it?
People who pay are the real customers. And since advertisers are paying to Facebook, they are the real customers of Facebook. We, the users, are being sold to advertisers.
And I’m not the one saying this. Facebook declares it openly. They earn through advertising.
Google is the same.
Google isn’t just about finding words from all over the internet. It’s about collecting your data and creating statistics. They know a lot about you – the terms you’ve searched recently, the videos you’ve watched, and a lot more.
Google is probably the world’s largest ongoing social behavioral research. They want to predict human behavior and earn from it.
They have a number of services and ALL their products serve the purpose of collecting more user data and adding it to their database. There is not a single Google product that doesn’t collect user data.
Since you’re not paying anything to Google, you’re not their customer. The people who buy their ad services are the real customers. You’re just the product that’s being sold.
Google wants you to be more attractive to its buyers. This is why you see only those ads that are relevant to you. This way, advertisers will pay more, because you, the product, has been polished according to their requirements.
How Did We Get Here?
The Science of FREE
Let’s face it, we like free stuff. We’ll buy practically anything if it’s got a big DISCOUNT written on it. FREE is even better. People actually bought bull crap in 2014 Black Friday sale because it was on a discounted price of $6!
But why are we so crazy about free stuff?
Because we love receiving something for nothing.
The mentality to get freebies is why companies invest in giveaways and samples so that people can try things for free and get hooked.
Let’s analyze why we love free things.
With free stuff, we have low expectations. You take it because well, what’s the worst that’s gonna happen? You might have to throw it away. Big deal, it was for free anyway.
Same is with free services. From Facebook to Twitter to just about everything else. Free things have their own charm. You don’t have to pay anything and you get something in return. It’s win-win.
The Tech Giants Lured Us to Use Their “FREE” Products And Got Us Addicted
Why would a company spend billions of dollars to come up with new and free products for you? Why would a company create a chatting platform that you can use for free? Why would they come up with online office document editors and free storage for your photos and videos?
Out of the goodness of their hearts? Multi-billion corporations don’t run on the goodness of hearts. They run on dollars.
They do it because they want their product (you) to be the best for their customers. That’s what all good businesses do.
Most of us cannot live without Google, Gmail, Facebook, and YouTube. They’ve got us addicted. Imagine losing the internet connection for a day so you cannot access your Facebook or Gmail – you’ll feel a slight anxiety attack. These services have become very important to us.
Nothing is free, really
If something is for free, it means it comes with hidden costs. And when you don’t know the real costs, you don’t know how much you’ll end up paying.
The combined share of Facebook and Google is now 60% of the 2019 digital ad spending, which is more than the total amount spent on ads on TV.
And in the final months of 2018, Facebook gained $30 per U.S. user through ad revenues. It earned that much because advertisers were willing to pay huge amounts for your data.
How They Got Us Addicted
In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg said that their mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
But in the same year, when Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, was interviewed, he said that Facebook is “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
It’s about the validation that social media provides us. Every time we post something and someone likes or comments on it, we get a little dopamine hit. It’s this validation for which we keep going back to Facebook.
This got us addicted. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram – they all work on the same principle. And we keep adding more content so we can get more likes and comments.
We Have Been Warned Time And Again
Experts have been saying “You’re the product” for several years now. In his book Program or Be Programmed, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff raised the issue of the user being used by the platform.
In 2010, security author Bruce Schneier expressed his dissatisfaction towards Facebook as it exploits people’s openness on social media. He said, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not – you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers.”
Even before that, there have been mentions of this same notion every now and then.
The following quote by William S Burroughs from his novel Naked Lunch is closely related to today’s online world.
“The junk [heroin] merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.”
And if you want to go academic, you’ll find an article published in the early ’80s by Dallas Smythe, a professor at the Simon Fraser University. He wrote the article “On the audience commodity and its work” and discussed how the audience is actually a commodity.
Despite all the warnings, we continue to use free social media and search platforms.
Google and Facebook Couldn’t Care Less About You
You, as an individual, aren’t important to Google or Facebook. They aren’t interested in individuals. They are interested in groups.
They don’t care if you’re a nice person or a serial killer. They care about the groups you belong to.
They have their own classifications. If you like Japanese porn, you’re in one group. If you’re a middle-aged housewife who reblogs fashion posts, you’re in another group.
Of course, these groups can merge. Advertisers need to see if you’re any good for the product they’re selling. You could be nameless or faceless for all they care. All they need is to sort you in a relevant group so the right ads can be thrown your way.
While Google has a better reach than Facebook, the latter knows more about you and can show you just the right ads. It’s a close competition.
How Free Is Harming Us
There are many tech giants whose users are their customers. For example, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple get money directly from you. However, it’s different for search and social platforms.
Here is how free services are harming us.
No right to privacy
Because we don’t pay for the services we use, is it fair for them to play with our data? The security conscious people among us might get angry. But we’re the products. They don’t care about us. They don’t want to make their customers angry so they continue using us.
According to computer scientist Jaron Lanier, all popular social media sites are made just for behavior modification, “It’s like, why would you go sign up for an evil hypnotist who’s explicitly saying that his whole purpose is to get you to do things that people have paid him to get you to do, but he won’t tell you who they are?”
When we know that social media sites are using us for our data, why do we continue using them? With these sites, we get no right to privacy.
Lack of transparency
Millions and millions of people use Facebook and Google to get their daily dose of networking, news, celebrity gossip, and several other things.
But what comes on our feed isn’t random, it’s a result of long and complicated algorithms. These algorithms are not made public. Tech giants can change their algorithms whenever they want. And there are several industries that rise and fall because of these changes.
Big businesses that were pretty popular a few years ago have disappeared because of some decisions Google and Facebook took. For example, some content mills that made big bucks in their days, completely went down after Google started giving less importance to them.
These are the times of opacity where a lot is managed by big corporations and they don’t believe in transparency. Whatever you see on your feed is because someone paid for it. Since these companies don’t reveal their algorithms, we don’t know who paid what to make us see something.
The algorithms of social media aren’t made so they can inform us better. They are designed to get more value from us. Companies want to manipulate your attention and use it for their customers, the advertisers.
If a company is making its profits through advertising, its focus will be to drive more advertisers. They will do this by making people click on ad links so they can generate more revenue.
And they would want people to see exactly what they like so they feel like clicking on the links. When a user clicks on an ad, it generates engagement. Since Facebook tries to maximize this engagement, it is somewhat responsible for the Myanmar genocide.
There are other major issues that resulted from Facebook such as the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the revival of preventable diseases through the anti-vaccination drive, and of course its harmful effects on the mental health of several users.
Facebook and Google don’t check (at least not deeply) the authenticity of their advertisers. You might see an ad of a donation drive for a poor homeless boy who needs immediate medical treatment and it just might be fake.
While platforms with user-generated content cannot review each post made by each user, they should at least check the authenticity of their advertisers. Will they do that and anger a part of their customers? Doubt it.
So What’s Next?
Regulations might help
The social media industry needs to be regulated. When Congress questioned Zuckerberg, he looked baffled, even though the questions were highly inept.
And even though the questions weren’t especially grilling, let this be a beginning. This can be a process that leads to strict regulations regarding how much data can be collected from willing users.
The world governments should question big companies about their policies so that there is more transparency and we can know what data is being collected and how it’s being used.
Problems with regulations
There’s a problem with regulating social media. There are a number of companies that use your data. Apart from Facebook and Google, there’s Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and a lot many.
There is a whole network of cookie sharing, data harvesting, and other practices and there are many entities involved. Who will regulate it all? When there’s a breach, which nation’s government will look into it?
Companies like Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon fall in the top 10 largest companies by market value. These are big and powerful corporations. Will they respect the decision of a nation?
If you think big corporations respect the decisions of governments, you’re wrong.
Zuckerberg had to testify before Congress for the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Cambridge Analytica lies in the UK but when Zuckerberg was asked to testify to the UK parliament, he refused thrice. Maybe he considers himself to be above the law of the United Kingdom.
This brings us to the question – even if there are regulations in place, will the social media giants adhere to them?
Facebook and Google can launch subscription based services. Instead of using our data to send away to ad companies, they can charge us directly. This way, instead of being the product, we can be the customers.
While this will mean we have to pay for the services we are getting for free right now, we will be important stakeholders in the company and they will have to listen to us.
This will be like Netflix. You pay a monthly fee and you get to access all those services but without your data being mined like that. We wouldn’t have to see any advertisements, and the companies will care for customer sentiments.
And to prove that they care about their customers, they will start making their algorithms transparent. In the long run, they might also get themselves audited by third parties to prove their dedication towards their customers. This will also have spillover effects on other businesses that use the internet.
Problems with paid subscriptions
But of course, there are challenges with this solution as well. Will a large number of audience that’s willfully chosen to stay ignorant of security hazards for the sake of free goodies give away money for monthly subscriptions?
And if they do, how many services will they stick to? Right now, an average person has a presence on Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and a lot of other platforms.
As they start paying for these services, they will limit their usage. As a result, some companies will fall and others will gain even larger audiences. This will wipe our struggling social media platforms that might be in their nascent stages and are being developed to challenge the likes of Facebook.
Make them pay us
Companies that use us as products and earn billions of dollars should pay us for our data. After all, we’re the ones adding content to their platforms. They are making money only because we choose to share our experiences. Why shouldn’t we be paid?
The idea might seem far-fetched but it is already being implemented. For example, Brave browser is a browser that pays you to use the internet.
When you use Brave, it will remove the ad-tracking companies and replace the web ads with ads from its own network. These ads do not track your activities like other ads around the web.
Brave will make some money from these ads. And it will give a part of that money to the user.
The browser comes with a Bitcoin wallet built into it. As you use the browser to surf the web, it accumulates some Bitcoin. Of course, this isn’t a large amount, but since you’re getting paid, you won’t really mind the ads.
This is a new prototype to fight the ad-intensive scenario. If more companies try out this model, there might be users who will give away their data wilfully in exchange for money while others can keep their data private. Since it will be consensual, there will be no issues.
Will Things Change?
Of all the solutions discussed above, the one about paid subscriptions seems the most viable one. But will people accept it?
Consider a Facebook hoax that did rounds a few years ago. People said that Facebook will charge a fee for its services. It was a rumor but people who thought it was true were outraged.
Why would they get angry over it? Since they were addicted to Facebook, they had gotten comfortable in its free services. Suddenly paying for something that you got for free seems like a very bad deal.
If Facebook starts charging for its services, a LOT of people will migrate to other platforms. But since they have all their friends on this one platform and they have devoted a lot of time to it, it’s very difficult for them to find a similar platform and to shift their presence there.
Besides, when you get used to one service, it’s difficult to shift to a different one. You get in that comfort zone. A lot of people complained when Facebook shifted its traditional look to a timeline one.
We all know that there are other search engines apart from Google. There are other video services other than YouTube. There are other social media channels than Facebook. But since we are comfortable with these services, we don’t think about migrating.
Companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Reddit thrive only because people share their content. These platforms will be of no value if nobody shares their opinions or experiences there.
This is why people wouldn’t want to migrate to a new social media platform, even if it offers a more transparent algorithm.
While we are outraged by the way they use our data, question is, if they start charging us for the stuff they’re giving us today “for free,” will we pay for it?