Internet Companies Don’t Serve Us; They Sell Us

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.

For several years I joined 150,000 other sad souls in Las Vegas in January for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. The show is, like Las Vegas, a celebration of things that are not what they seem.

For several years I joined 150,000 other sad souls in Las Vegas in January for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. The show is, like Las Vegas, a celebration of things that are not what they seem.

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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

20 Responses to “Internet Companies Don’t Serve Us; They Sell Us”

  1. Great post, and it is wise to know how media works but it has helped eliminate the gate keepers (publishers, magazine editors, film directors) until they become the gate keepers and we move on.

  2. completelyinthedark Reply July 7, 2014 at 8:52 am

    I suspended my FB account last week. Really wasn’t using it much anyway. Agree about Google’s transparency. They’re also finding ways to be more useful (Drive, Docs, +, etc.).

  3. Patrick, I try not to think about this stuff TOO much since there’s little I can do to change or control it, though DO want to be cognizant of it! So thank you for informing me, in greater detail than I was aware of before😀

    I happen to hate all the ads, especially on a few of the blogs I follow in which the pop-ups can sometimes stall or completely lock up my computer because I have them blocked and I think the app gets overloaded. I “get” all of it. I mean, we live in a capitalistic country (world) and the truth is, advertising agencies are just as bad as lawyers as far as the “money wheel” is concerned.

    The way I see it is that Facebook, Google, etc. are no different than newspapers, TV, magazines, etc. in using advertising to make money, not only to support their existence BUT become pretty darn rich. They simply have the high-technology tools and platforms to do it in a much faster, more targeted and, I’m sure, often more effective way, ALL to VERY wide markets!

    When we use their “free” services, it’s very much like a “one hand washes the other” deal we’re “signing.” Like everything else–nothing is truly “free” in this realm, except maybe advice, opinions and–many times–valuable information (like on this blog). Their access is so far-reaching, it feels overwhelmingly pervasive—and it is!—but they are offering a lot, too, most of which we use to our benefit!

    I may have mentioned at some other time, that I have a deep love/hate relationship with technology and the internet. I hate the time-suck that it is, the addictive nature of it, and the over-exposure to EMFs, BUT I ADORE the ease of word processing and printers, and I LOVE the ease of access to information and communication, certainly to people, places and things I wouldn’t have a connection with otherwise.

    We, as writers, start up blogs for the initial purpose of creating a platform, since it’s expected now in the publishing industry, and it MAY help us succeed more so than if we didn’t do so. It’s initially a burden due to the time-suck and commitment involved. That’s the part I “hate.” BUT the part I truly love is those connections, that information, meeting people like you and others–the “kindred spirit” time spent and the wonderful conversations that take place.

    Since I’m not doing anything I have to “hide,” it’s not a great concern to me. Just like National Security. Is it “Big Brother”ish? Sure is, and perhaps that is abused, but we need it and I’d rather feel like there’s at least an attempt to avoid tragedy, even at the expense of privacy. Like I said–if you’re not doing anything questionable or “wrong,” why care too much? I also suppose that when it comes to advertising, I’m not someone influenced by it–in fact, I abhor it–so it doesn’t way heavily. That’s not to say it doesn’t irritate me! lol It most certainly does! But it’s part of the price we must pay, just like the superfluous ads in our favorite magazines.

    Wow, Patrick! As always, you spark intellectual conversation🙂 Thank you, WordPress🙂 Speaking of which, I am making it known on the blogs I follow—especially to the ones whose owners may notice—I’m trying to make a conscious decision on cutting back for a while on how much time I spend on reading/commenting on blogs I love and follow, ’cause if I don’t, my own blogs will never be launched *sigh* I’m not disappearing…just fading for a bit with occasional apparitional appearances. I figure if I actually TELL people I’m doing this—I actually WILL! lol Though, honestly, I doubt I’ll miss many–if any–of your posts, Patrick🙂

    I’m sorry I got so longwinded, but your posts do that to me! lol

    • We all have to monitor how much time we can spend visiting others’ blogs, unfortunately. What I can say, however, in the most encouraging way possible, is that you at times have written your own posts here (!), so maybe you should instead put some of the positive effort you share here and other blogs into the blog you want to pursue!🙂

      • You’re right, Patrick! Actually, there have been quite a few times, while writing a comment on a blog, that I ended up saving it for a future post and made my comment more concise🙂 That’s only if it’s a subject I would post on either one of my blogs, though.

        And after I’d posted here, things you pointe out crossed my mind at times and the one thing that bothers/concerns me is the “reading” of emails.THAT is a line that shouldn”t be crossed. That’s like opening someone’s snail mail. Flat out wrong.

  4. Exactly! I also wrote an article today at The Kaleidoscope on the Facebook psychology experiment which was motivated more by a business mind rather than an academic mind. Here is link to the article : http://wp.me/p4Czjd-31

    • I like the piece, Ayush. The “informed” vs. “weak” consent is an issue here. I saw the publication has done a mea culpa, essentially suggesting it might have focused more on whether the degree of consent was sufficient to be published in their journal.

  5. Ah yes, Patrick… those wonderful adverts ‘tailored’ to our particular ‘wants and needs’…

    I’ve learned to no longer be fazed when an internet site apparently knows I live in Maidstone in Kent, and presents me with ‘local’ adverts accordingly. However, I am DEEPLY offended that I’m constantly bombarded with adverts promising to reveal the secrets behind ‘getting rid of belly fat,’ ‘reducing wrinkles’ and ‘improving my looks without resorting to plastic surgery!’

    I have no idea why this is, since I have NEVER searched for any of these things via Google or anything else (I’ve got better things to worry about than achieving maximum hotness while zimmer-framing my way into my forties.) Clearly some search algorithm somewhere has checked out my age, decided I must be falling apart and now feels a duty to inform me I need to sort myself out, looks-wise. Thanks a lot, The Internet!

    Mind you, on the plus side it doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of some of the weirder subjects I HAVE actually searched for as part of my current novel-in-progress; vehicle anti-theft devices that deliver an electric shock to potential thieves, how to kill, skin and cook a rat, how long it takes a person to die from having their throat cut… although I suppose the NSA might have a secret file on me somewhere…

    But you’re right, of course – in this day and age nothing is truly ‘free’ anymore. We are all little data nuggets, ready to be mined by them gold-diggin’ big businesses😉

    • Ah yes, fiction writers and their search engine histories! In the pre-Internet era it was their library checkout history.

      You raise a good point on targeted advertising. Despite the massive amount of data mining they do, they’re not very precise. I graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts a year ago. I constantly see ads now for VCFA; um, already got a degree from them, thank you!🙂

  6. FB doesn’t display my posts to many of my followers because I won’t tell them any private information, like my age, or where I went to high school, so they punish me. It’s kind of amusing. I guess one of these days I’ll have to make up some fake ‘info’ to make them happy.
    Good post, Patrick.

    • Yes, Cynthia, I think a lot of people don’t really realize that FB is curating our news feeds, and it favors people who share more. Those get more likes, and so are shared more. It’s the amplifier effect you also see in search engine results, etc. In my personal FB account I only allow friends and friends of friends to see the profile, so it’s all but invisible to most, and that is something FB doesn’t like at all.

      • Contrary to most people’s assumption, it’s not a democracy. A post like yours was needed, but I doubt it will cause anyone to change their behavior on FB based on any new awareness. We crave attention far too much for that.

  7. Hi Patrick, Great article. I think about this a lot. I know FB “uses” me but right now that is outweighed by the fact I live in a country far from my loved ones who enjoy seeing my photos, posts, and like to send me messages. It makes me feel less distant than I really am from them (perhaps more poignant for me right now as I’ve just said farewell to my parents and am on the long haul back to Oman). My FB page also drives some readership to my blog, so despite the fact my posts and content can be hidden from others, I have devoted followers who share my content, which obviously helps my readership on Artist Think.

    At some point, a line will be drawn and when FB crosses it, people will respond. I think of BOA’s decision to charge people’s debit accounts and how thousands, if not more, closed their accounts in protest. It’s about bottom dollar, and until people change their spending habits (or commitment to FB, which will hurt their advertisements), FB will keep on keeping on.

  8. I appreciate the thought-provoking post. Yes, we have become the product that FB is selling. And I wasn’t even surprised. I knew that they weren’t a public service and that sooner or later they’d have to make money off of us. Using us as part of the study and publishing it without telling us about it also fits with the Facebook M.O. — no respect or transparency for their clientele (and why I have a love/hate/hate relationship with FB).

    It’s still offensive to feel like I’ve been duped, even though I opted in.

    Like you, I’ve limited my use to close friends and I don’t post often enough to appear on my friends’ newsfeeds. And yet, somehow I still feel compelled to check FB a few times per week.

  9. I have no regrets Patrick, to embrace the new is to begin to understand the progression of humanity. It is important however to be aware. For example, I cull every now and then. Take a risk and just delete Apps and assorted leverages every now and then. It feels remarkably powerful and keeps things in perspective. Nothing is necessarily bad, it is only how it is utilised that creates it’s story. B

  10. I have no objection to using Facebook and Google. It’s 2014. This is the world we live in. From 1971-84 we lived in the Philippines. For most of that time there was nothing good to watch on TV and no internet. That was another time, another place. We did other things.

    Until I started thinking about publishing, I seldom used Facebook. Now I find it useful. When I started writing my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, there wasn’t as much available on the internet, certainly not in English about the Japanese invasion of China. I’m glad it’s easier to look things up now. I ignore the ads wherever I see them.

    Maybe I’d be more careful and more worried if I were younger. I notice that my children and grandchildren seldom use Facebook and they’re careful about what they post.

  11. It’s interesting to keep in mind that FB as an entire entity is only 10 years old. Just a decade and look how far it’s come! I left FB last week and never plan on returning. I had been on FB for the last 6-7 years or so. It’s changed, it has, in many more ways than one – just as Google has changed, and Youtube, and Tumblr, and all these initial Internet sites that were consumed by multi-national corporation bigwigs.

    Originally, I went on FB as a way to not use Myspace to keep track of friends (I am Gen Y/Millennial), but soon after Skype and other platforms became increasingly popular for mainstream Internet communication (I’m not including underground-ish platforms like reddit, IRC, etc. for sake of brevity). For the past 2-3 years, I have remained on FB purely to keep in easy contact with some close relatives (who can’t bother figuring out update e-mail correspondence for whatever reason) and to collect links that I find for later use because why not. My FB account had been mostly a storage grounds for links, images, music, etc., though there was a very short time in 2011 where the FB community suddenly seemed to have a surge of political activity and since then, there seems to be a fervor pitch involving american perspectives on politics (and who knows whether this can be taken at face value or not with FB and considering it was around OWS time).

    Anyways, I had set a date to terminate my FB account that I set much earlier this year because it was way past time. Termination of accounts and the Death of Sites, especially social forums, is pretty common for the Internet and I don’t see why FB (or any other site) should be exempt. It’s just funnier when they waste as much money as possible, then become a shill for whatever hands are on it. It is weird though, seeing as FB struggles to maintain it’s status and stuff with the way people defend a site… but it’s not surprising either. There seems to be a weird movement to create a more permanent Internet, so that it can act to generate money and keep people distracted.

    I don’t know why or the demographics that could be brought up around it. Part of it is privacy and /knowing/ that once something is on the Internet, you never have control of it – ever again – and to attempt to have control is a futile effort that is only attempted by those who don’t know better (common internet understanding). But FB is, as I like to call it, “soul-sucking” – so are many “social media platforms”, but FB especially (I mean, have you looked at Trending? lol, that trending list and google top news are the biggest pieces of… uhm… Highly Suggested, USA-Approved Media around). It’s not even subtle about it. It’ll mess with you just for the lulz of it? (sorry, I mean, research – For Science!) and do whatever it can to gear it so that $$$$$$$$ is being made for someone. It’s bs.

    So, I deleted my FB last week and I was happy to do it. I was so excited I even did it a couple days early of my set date (which happened to be the day after you wrote this post!). My relatives can get it together and e-mail/call me if they need to. (:I) FB doesn’t own me. I do what I want and if I’m on the Internet, I go where I please….

    Though, I’ve become less allured to the Internet in general and yes, social media platforms have always had a place… but it’s a place I question constantly whether I want to be and to contribute my energy towards. For the time, I am on it/part of it… I enjoy it to an extent. I grew up with the Internet, it’s one of my homes. Right now I prefer quieter sites with not much social back and forth and studying whatever I can get my hands on when I have the energy, WP is a new join and I’m still getting the feel of it – same goes for Twitter (I’ve been on and off Twitter… I occasionally get nauseated by that site). I have a Tumblr that I love… though I hate that it’s slowly becoming more soul-sucking each day.🙂

    Anyways, interesting, well-timed article that made me nod a few times.

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