Repeat after me: We are not Facebook’s customers; we are their product.
This sentence has been in my head ever since first noticing the kerfuffle surrounding Facebook in the wake of the publication of an article documenting how–prepare to be shocked–the company conducted experiments on how they presented our news feeds to see if they could manipulate our emotional states. (They can.) Countless Facebook users are enraged at being treated like lab rats. But have any of them stopped to ask why Facebook provides its services for free?
Facebook sells us to its advertisers. The more they can control us–their product–the more profit they can make.
What was truly shocking about what Facebook did was not that they conducted these experiments, but that they then published the study in a journal. Every time they adjust their terms of “service” to better serve us to advertisers, we rise up in alarm. But we then return to eating the Soylent Green.
It’s no coincidence that Facebook has a market capitalization of $170 billion, larger than the gross domestic product of 140 countries. We are in a new age of Robber Barons, and they all have one thing in common; they’ve suckered us into using their free services to sell us. Google. Twitter. Even WordPress, which has hosted this blog for me for four years without charging me a dime but runs ads on those posts.
Let’s look at Google for a minute. We don’t think of them as a social media company–unless you’re one of those outliers who uses the Google + service–but their mastery at the art of selling consumers makes Facebook look like, well, Friendster. We use their search engine, which chronicles our every search. What has Google learned about me in the past week? It now knows I’ve been struggling with a pinched nerve in my neck; that I’m considering a winter vacation in Arizona; and that I couldn’t remember the lyrics to Green Day’s “American Idiot.”
That’s harmless enough, right? Well, Google combines those results with our use of Google Maps (both where we want to go and through geolocation where we are); Gmail (it searches “keywords,” in other words it reads your email), YouTube (you really like cats, don’t you?), and numerous other “free” platforms. It gives away the Android operating system to mobile phone manufacturers so it can track us on the go. And like Facebook, it provides incentives to keep us “logged in” so it can track us even when we’re not using one of its services.
I will give Google credit for transparency. They actually boast about their embrace of Big Data, not really hiding the fact that the data in question, like Soylent Green, comprises us.
So what are our options? Well, we could toss our smartphones in the trash, return our computers to the word processing machines they were before the Internet, and start interacting with our friends in person. Or we can continue to use our smartphones, Internet connections and social media services with our eyes open.
In some respects there’s little harm in being sold as a product. I don’t have to patronize the advertisers they push on me (increasingly deceptively, as I found when researching Arizona hotels and had a hard time distinguishing the ads from normal search results). And these companies claim that more targeted advertising based on my preferences serves me as a consumer.
I choose to opt in to the system, but I do so with caution.
What are your thoughts on the pervasiveness of tech companies in our lives today? By reading this you are 1) online, and 2) reading content on a social media platform. You, like me, have opted in. Any regrets?