You say I’m the product of services I don’t pay for? I’m fine with that.

Posted on September 29, 2014 8:09 am by | Advertising | Business | Facebook | Social Media

Ello, the new social network attracting a lot of users, proclaims that on Facebook and other social networks, “You’re the product that’s being bought and sold.” In fact, co-founder Paul Budnitz told Mashable he doesn’t even think Facebook is a social network, since on Facebook, “The advertisers are the customer and the user is the product that’s being bought and sold.”

This is a familiar mantra. Google reports more than 48 million results for a search on “Facebook” and “You are the product.” Among the results is a 2011 Wired piece that quotes media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff: “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.”

Of course, Johnny won’t have a social graph for Facebook to exploit if Facebook doesn’t help Johnny make friends. Still, the meme persists:

You are the product

There’s plenty of pushback to the notion that we’re all Facebook’s product, including Derek Powazek, who argued that you can be the product even if you pay, while you’re not always the product when you don’t. The phrase is just so hip and cool, though, that a lot of people have embraced it without really thinking it through.’

You’re even the product on Ello

An Atlantic piece by Rose Eveleth argues that you are, in fact, Ello’s product: “Ello doesn’t have to be storing and selling your information for you to be the product,” Eveleth writes:

The fact that you, the user, even exist and use their site makes you a product… even if Ello fails to make money, if it isn’t able to successfully execute on the freemium model it has talked about (and many sites don’t), you are still currency in the form of promotion for Ello’s founders. You’re a line on their resume that gets them that next job, or that next seed money for that next startup: Founder, Ello, 200,000 users (hey look, that’s you!).

Frank in the BoxThe simple fact is, though, that I’m fine being the product—if that’s how we choose to define the relationship we have with advertiser-supported media. Getting free content in exchange for exposure to advertising wasn’t an Internet invention. Among other things, it has fueled free television since before I was born. I have enjoyed plenty of great content on ad-supported TV. (Despite all the great shows that have emerged from outside traditional sponsored programming—from Game of Thrones to House of Cards—I still think NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street is the best thing TV ever gave us, at least under Andre Braugher left the series.)

Some forms of journalism have thrived under the paid advertising model. My first full-time job after earning my journalism degree was with a weekly community newspaper that was delivered to every house in Canoga Park, California. Advertising made it possible for thousands of similar newspapers to provide hyperlocal coverage of news and events that wouldn’t warrant the attention of the big regional papers like the Los Angeles Times. On TV and the web, of course, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and other news outlets exist only because advertisers will pay to reach their audiences.

Movie theater owners who couldn’t survive only on box office receipts (which barely cover the rental of the film) have turned to showing commercials before the movie begins as a way to pump up the bottom line. Even though I pay for my ticket (which benefits the film’s producers), I’m still a product, a warm body in a seat watching Coca-Cola ads before I get to watch the flick. That’s fine: The theater owner gets to continue showing films and I get to continue watching them on the big screen.

Loyalty cardEven in places where you would think you’re just the customer, you’re also a product. Consider the grocery store, where food and household products are available to buy. Yet every time I key in my club card number so I can knock 10 or 15% off my grocery bill, Safeway adds the data about my purchases to my profile and kicks me coupons for new products they think, based on my purchase history, I’ll be inclined to try. Those products are promoted in partnership with the manufacturer who, under the “you are the product” logic, is Safeway’s customer.

There are risks in the purely ad-supported model, of course. In response to my query on Ello about why being a product is problematic, Social Media Club co-founder Howard Greenstein replied, “It becomes wrong when the power and information are used not for, but against you…When the interests of the service and the customer don’t take the end user (product) properly into account, we don’t benefit.”

While that’s true, I also expect that most consumers won’t continue to use a service that doesn’t take the interests of its users into account. In fact, there are plenty of companies we pay to use their products and services who also treat us badly or misuse our information; it’s not a behavior that’s exclusive to the ad-supported crowd. As Powazek said in 2012 post, “What matters is how companies demonstrate their respect for their customers. We should hold their feet to the fire when they demonstrate a lack of respect.”

In the meantime, Facebook’s ads are getting ever better at exposing me to products and services I’m actually interested in. For instance, I was reading about how yesterday was the last Saturday during which Saturday morning cartoons would be broadcast in the U.S. So what showed up in ads (which are easily ignored)? A DVD collection of Saturday morning cartoons for $7.95 from Amazon. (I was tempted.)

Ultimately, being “the product” doesn’t bother me, and I’m not inclined to abandon a network that works for me for a new one just because it doesn’t have ads.



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