Idiots repeat catchphrases to show off faux intelligence, but they really only serve to remind everyone that the Real World does not operate on catchphrases. The latest example that has been bothering me is this “you are the product” revelation about Facebook, as if someone had finally, just now, (in 2012!) realized that we have all been duped. Here is Douglas Rushkoff – who calls himself a “media theorist”:
“Ask a kid what Facebook is for and they’ll answer ‘it’s there to help me make friends’. Facebook’s boardroom isn’t talking about how to make Johnny more friends. It’s talking about how to monetise Johnnny’s social graph.”
He added: “Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are paying. If you don’t know who the customer of the product you are using is, you don’t know what the product is for. We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.”
Aside from the fact that “media theorist” isn’t a real title or profession, this analysis is wrong on multiple counts. It’s a narrow-minded half-truth repeated to sound all new-age and post-modern, but doesn’t hold up to even light analysis.
Firstly, “you are the product” is not a novel insight, nor does it capture the essence of the relationship between a user and the company. Is Facebook somehow different from free TV, free newspapers, specialized magazines, or the millions of other websites out there? Trading attention and information for a service or product is not new, nor is it cynical and evil. Rushkoff is right that “usually the people who are paying are the customers,” but he fails to make the obvious connection: that money isn’t the only form of payment – time and information work just as well. It’s also insulting to the audience to presume they don’t understand that free products may be sponsored by ads, which is basically what “you are the product” boils down to. Doesn’t sound so smart now, does it?
Facebook’s boardroom very much does care about how to help people make more friends. A social graph isn’t very valuable if it, you know, isn’t a graph. The fact that Facebook is trying to monetize its platform shouldn’t be surprising, and its a false dichotomy to conclude that because they want to make money, that they therefore don’t care to serve their users or their interests. Facebook is a comic-book villain, and it’s cackling as it exploits its userbase without regard to the long term consequences. Please.
The Facebook platform is a product. The New York Times website is a product. To argue otherwise ignores the reality.
Internet users are notoriously demanding: they insist that software be high quality, responsive, and free of advertising and intrusive privacy policies. But most of all, they want it to be fucking free. All else is secondary, and easily traded away. People are not doing this subconsciously. They are not being manipulated like sheep, or subversively being tricked into signing up for Facebook, Gmail, Dropbox, Pandora, and Twitter.
This is important because it brings me to my next point: the market has spoken, and it wants free. Everything on the internet must be free. It must be free of ads too, but for literally 99.9% of people, that is a small concession to make if it means Free. Anyone who speaks to the contrary is in such a small minority that they more or less don’t exist. But the internet has the ability to amplify the voices of a small and vocal minority, to make this seem like it’s a real issue. But most of these people don’t stop to think that it can’t be both free and not have ads; and when the chips are down they’ll keep on using Facebook just like the next guy, because the average internet user will spend 4 hours researching prices to save 6 bucks.
Douglas Rushkoff on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rushkoff
I guess he likes being a product too.