I’ve been thinking about this a long time, but a recent tweet by @dkernohan made me think I should throw it up somewhere.
There’s a saying that if you are not paying for something like Facebook, that you aren’t the customer — you’re the product.
And I think this is true in many ways. But it hides the fact that this happens in many smaller ways in our lives:
- You are the product at your local bar. People could drink at home much more cheaply, they go to the bar you hang out at because they want to be around people like you. You and your friends go to the bar because there are certain amenities they provide, but to some extent what a bar provides is an atmosphere and a chance of unplanned connection — both those things are made of customers, not beer.
- You are the product at the college you attend. Bright, outgoing, engaged students create the environment the college sells to other students. Most learning you do in college is going to be impacted more by the value those peers bring to the table than by your faculty or facilities. And if there is a reason that residential Higher Ed. will survive, it’s partially that Fb lock-in — we could hire out people and buildings to do something radically different, but we can’t really port the social network.
In fact, at most things that have a social element, from contra dancing to spin class to luxury cruises to football games, you are the product — at least somewhat.
The difference, it seems to me, is that in most of these cases you are a product that is being sold to your peers. To your fellow customers. That’s easy for you to comprehend. You go to the bar because you like the sort of people there, you get that other people like that too. You join a dating service — and your participation is sold to other people who want to date. You go to College X knowing that part of what College X provides is the sort of kids you want to grow up with.
So there’s sort of a reciprocity at play here with our more mundane examples, and it doesn’t feel creepy. Your presence or participation is being sold to other people in the same way their presence is being sold to you.
I think the big thing about Facebook that creeps us out is not that we are a product, but that we have no idea who we are being sold to or why. It’s a subtle point, perhaps, but an important one.