SOCIAL MEDIA: Are You Really the Product?

From a privacy standpoint, advertising and the internet were a match made in hell. The personalized-advertising model employed by Facebook, Google, and other online platforms is the product of that unholy union. And as a society, our acceptance of it amounts to something like a Faustian bargain. To the extent that our personal data has become a product, it’s because we—and our representatives in government—have allowed it to happen.


On March 21, at the height of the scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook user data for political targeting, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted a quote that he attributed to the computer security expert Bruce Schneier:

Bruce Schneier: . “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not – you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers.”

— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) March 21, 2018

Tapper’s tweet was retweeted more than 3,900 times. But that same day, HuffPost ran a story that attributed a similar quote to privacy expert Mark Weinstein: “You as a Facebook user are not the customer. You are the product they sell.” Also on March 21, the Week ran an op-ed by politics writer Edward Morrissey: “You’re not Facebook’s customer. You’re Facebook’s product.” Morrissey didn’t attribute the phrase to anyone. Neither did Tapper’s CNN colleague Brian Stelter, when he said on March 19, “You know, Facebook’s free. If something’s free, that means you’re the product.”

The New York Times used the phrase “You’re the Product” in an April 8 headline. Influential social media critic Zeynep Tufekci used it in her September 2017 TED Talk, as did tech podcaster Manoush Zomorodi in her April 2017 TED Talk (quoting former Facebooker Antonio Garcia Martinez). Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak used it in an April 8 interview explaining why he quit Facebook; Apple CEO Tim Cook used it back in 2014, referring not to Facebook but to Google.

The saying, in short, is everywhere these days. It has become such a staple of social media criticism that Facebook itself sought to address it in a Q&A on its Hard Questions blog this week. (Spoiler: Facebook disagrees that you’re its product, albeit rather unconvincingly.)

It’s easy to see why “you are the product” is so resonant these days. In a time of confusing data-privacy scandals and mysterious machine-learning algorithms, it offers a deliciously simple explanation for internet companies’ alleged misdeeds. Facebook doesn’t really care about its users, the saying implies, because they’re not the ones ultimately opening their wallets; advertisers are. We’d be fools to expect otherwise from a free service!

Behind the aphorism’s sudden ubiquity, however, lies a long and surprising history—one that yields a fresh perspective on our present technocultural moment. It suggests that Facebook’s business model is neither as novel as it might seem, nor as deterministic of its values as critics assume. The pithiness that makes “you are the product” so quotable risks obscuring the complex pact between Facebook and its users, in ways that make social media’s problems seem inevitable and insoluble. They’re not—but if we want to fix them, the first thing we need to do is redefine our relationship.

Jake Tapper wasn’t far off with his tweet: Bruce Schneier actually was one of the first to apply “you’re the product” to Facebook, way back in October 2010. He used the line in a speech at a security conference in Europe, and the prominent tech and security writer Barton Gellman highlighted it in a blog post for Time. In an email, Schneier told me he recalled popularizing the phrase but said he didn’t believe it was its originator.

The most famous quote about Facebook isn’t actually about Facebook—it’s about television.

He’s right: Just a month earlier, the tech media magnate Tim O’Reilly had retweeted his colleague Bryce Roberts, who had plucked a quote from the comments section of a post on the discussion site Metafilter. The Metafilter post was not about Facebook, but about a disastrous redesign of the news site Digg, which was also free and ad-supported. The quote came from a commenter named blue_beetle, who summed up disaffected users’ sentiments thusly: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” O’Reilly’s retweet of that quote may have been its entry into mainstream tech criticism, although O’Reilly told me via email he had no idea he’d been instrumental to its rise.

But even that isn’t where the story begins, because “you are the product” had been deployed to criticize media decades long before “social” entered the equation. Whether or not blue_beetle knew it, a version of the quote predates not just Facebook and Digg but the entire modern consumer internet. The invaluable online resource Quote Investigator traces it all the way back to 1973, and an unlikely source: a short film by the artists Carlota Fay Schoolman and Richard Serra called “Television Delivers People.”

The most famous quote about Facebook isn’t actually about Facebook—it’s about television.

Which makes some sense: Network TV in the early 1970s had much in common with Facebook today. It was the everyperson’s refuge, a groundbreaking technology that had morphed into a mindless escape for the masses. It was also a primary source of news, which wedged awkwardly in between the soap operas, comedies, and crime shows. As such, it was widely accused of distorting, oversimplifying, and sensationalizing the vital information of democracy in a crass bid for ratings (read: advertising dollars). Finally, it was a medium that concentrated enormous cultural power in a few corporations—ABC, CBS, and NBC.

While TV networks didn’t collect viewers’ personal data on anything like the scale that Facebook does today, they did carefully study their audience demographics and pitch those to advertisers. Facebook can show your ad to males aged 25 to 54 in Houston whose browsing habits suggest they like football; ABC’s Houston affiliate can show your ad to everyone who’s watching Monday Night Football, with roughly similar results.

Yet if network TV and Facebook share a basic business model—delivering news and entertainment to huge numbers of people who can then be targeted with advertisements—they’ve had dramatically different impacts on society and politics. And the people who accused TV of treating viewers as the product had a very different beef than the ones now alleging that Facebook and other internet platforms mistreat their users.

“Television delivers people” was not about data privacy. It was about the medium’s impact on culture and politics. Serra and Schoolman’s critique was that TV placed the interests of advertisers over those of viewers in a subtle but deeply insidious way: by purveying content and ads that perpetuated the consumerist status quo, deadening free thinking and dampening activism. The big networks would never produce a show that threatened the interests of corporate America, they reckoned, because it was corporate America that they ultimately served.

This was not a novel idea even then: You can hear in “Television Delivers People” echoes of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 protest anthem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” These works aimed to expose broadcast television as a corporate-sponsored force for homogeneity and conformity, an obstacle to social or political change.

In this respect, Facebook is nearly TV’s opposite. The social network stands accused of unduly amplifying, not crushing, divisive views—of polarizing rather than homogenizing us. The critique of Facebook as a news source is that it has undermined, not entrenched, established sources of information, putting sites run by Russian spooks and Macedonian teens on the same footing as the New York Times or broadcast networks. Where network TV appealed to the least common denominator, Facebook and other online platforms capitalize on people’s differences, nudging them along a path to extremism. Television may have been the enemy of the revolution that Scott-Heron had in mind. But social media helped to fuel revolutions across the Middle East, and it has helped to power populist upheavals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.

To the extent that our personal data has become a product, it’s because we—and our representatives in government—have allowed it to happen.

This suggests the free model per se is not what makes broadcast TV or Facebook what it is, from a societal standpoint. Though both aggregate attention for the benefit of advertisers, one does it by appealing to broad commonalities, while the other does it through endless personalization. The free model, it seems, can lead to either stasis or chaos, depending on the specifics of the medium.

Nor does the free model, by itself, automatically lead to mass surveillance of consumers’ every move for advertisers’ benefit. Businesses have always wanted to know more about consumers’ habits and preferences. Before the internet came along, they had to collect that data themselves, mostly through surveys and other forms of market research. Advertisers contented themselves with targeting people based on the TV shows they watched, the radio programs they listened to, the magazines they subscribed to, and the billboards they passed on the street. No, today’s privacy crisis was made possible only by the rise of a new, high-tech, interactive medium capable of tracking and storing users’ every move—a medium that has gone almost entirely unregulated in the name of facilitating innovation.

From a privacy standpoint, advertising and the internet were a match made in hell. The personalized-advertising model employed by Facebook, Google, and other online platforms is the product of that unholy union. And as a society, our acceptance of it amounts to something like a Faustian bargain. To the extent that our personal data has become a product, it’s because we—and our representatives in government—have allowed it to happen.

Facebook’s own response to the notion of its customers being the product didn’t exactly help its cause. From its blog post this week:

Q: If I’m not paying for Facebook, am I the product?

A: No. Our product is social media—the ability to connect with the people that matter to you, wherever they are in the world. It’s the same with a free search engine, website or newspaper. The core product is reading the news or finding information—and the ads exist to fund that experience.

Just saying that users aren’t Facebook’s product doesn’t make it so, of course. By at least one definition, a product is something that is manufactured or refined for sale. In Facebook’s case, it isn’t social media that’s for sale—it’s advertising space, whether in the news feed, your Instagram feed, or elsewhere on the web. No wonder the company’s breezy dismissal was met with mockery.

To say that Facebook’s users are its product, however, requires a bit of a leap. If the claim is just that users are the product of any advertising-based medium—as Schoolman and Serra seemed to imply—then it becomes a critique of mass media as a whole, which feels too broad to be helpful now. The reason the phrase seems so apt in Facebook’s case is that its ads derive their value not just from its access to users’ attention, but from its access to their personal information. When Facebook sells an ad targeting someone with your particular browsing history, it feels like you personally are being sold in a way that a Monday Night Football ad doesn’t.

In any case, that semantic debate doesn’t fully capture the thrust of the critique. What people seem to mean when they say that you’re Facebook’s product is that Facebook treats you like a product—that it fails to respect your individualism, your humanity, or your long-term interests. And the implication is that this disrespect flows inevitably from the fact that you aren’t paying for Facebook’s service.

So the real questions are: Is Facebook’s free model the primary cause of its shortcomings as a source of information and a guardian of users’ data? And if so, what possible remedies does that suggest? Specifically: Would requiring people to pay for Facebook really fix its problems?

Cynics might not believe it, but Google and Facebook didn’t adopt the free model in order to serve advertisers. On the contrary, they adopted the advertising model as a way to keep serving their users for free. Google did so only with great reluctance; its founders had criticized advertising-based search engines as “inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers.” And contrary to popular perception, those who know and have worked closely with Mark Zuckerberg maintain that he’s never been all that interested in the advertising side of Facebook’s business.

That helps to explain why Google and Facebook really don’t think of their users as their products—at least, not their main products. Their leaders have always regarded advertising, and by extension users’ attention and data, as means to the end of building the products they really care about: Google search, Google Assistant, Facebook’s news feed.

That doesn’t mean these companies always put users’ interests first, of course. Both companies have worked relentlessly to develop new ways of tracking people, and they’ve done precious little to make sure users understood exactly what data they were giving up or how it might be used. They’ve hidden those details in thickets of legalese, buried in terms of service and privacy policies they know few will ever read. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed that Facebook was particularly cavalier with users’ personal data, allowing third-party app developers to harvest it for their own purposes.

But it’s also not accurate to say that free, ad-supported internet companies—or media companies like TV networks, for that matter—can abuse or betray their users with impunity just because those users aren’t paying. These companies’ massive scale may allow them to absorb backlashes like the #DeleteFacebook campaign better than, say, a luxury-goods brand could. Yet they still have a hard job in appealing to huge numbers of people enough to keep them coming back and spending their leisure time. The competition for people’s attention, among media and social media companies, is intense. And if the stakes are low for any given pair of eyeballs, the stakes of dominating user attention on a mass scale are extremely high—as Facebook and Google’s wild business success underscores. The reason the competition is intense is that users’ time, like money, is a scarce resource.

“You are the product” paints us as powerless pawns in Facebook’s game but gives us no leverage with which to improve our predicament.

Insofar as time is money, then, Facebook and TV aren’t really free. People spend time on it the way they spend money on other things, even if they tend to put less thought into how they spend their time than they do their money. The recent pushes by anti-tech activists for people to turn their phones grayscale or to “unplug,” then, are calls for them to conserve time and attention, on the assumption that it could be better spent elsewhere.

If anything, Facebook’s mistake in the Cambridge Analytica case was that it failed to treat users’ data as a valuable product. Whereas the company jealously guards the data that powers it targeted ads, it was for a time simply giving away some types of data to third-party developers in the hopes that they’d build popular apps on Facebook’s platform—all to keep its users happy and engaged.

None of this is to deny that “you are the product” is a potent line, or that it has value as a reminder that the interests of the mass media aren’t necessarily the same as the interests of everyone else. It was especially trenchant in 1973, and its recent resurgence for the social media era makes sense. But it’s 2018, and it’s time for Facebook’s critics to move past what has become a tired cliché. There’s something nihilistic about telling people they’re the product of a gigantic corporation and there’s nothing they can do about it. “You are the product” paints us as powerless pawns in Facebook’s game but gives us no leverage with which to improve our predicament.

It also seems to carry a strange implication that everything would be solved if only we had to pay for the privilege of social networking. The idea that paying for a product ensures better treatment holds some appeal at a time when the likes of Apple and Netflix are enjoying success without resorting to intrusive ads. Of course, not everyone can afford Apple products, or Netflix for that matter. And there are plenty of companies making paid products that don’t have their customers’ best interests in mind, either. Think of cigarette companies intentionally making their products more addictive, or Volkswagen cheating on emissions tests. In an early rebuttal to the “you’re the product” meme that’s still well worth reading, Derek Powazek favorably contrasted Tumblr’s customer service to that of Comcast, which charges people plenty of money while still treating them like dirt.

Facebook could theoretically offer a paid tier for which people could opt out of seeing ads in their news feeds—an idea that has resurfaced in recent months. But they’d still need to provide plenty of data to Facebook just to power their own feeds. Meanwhile, this would create a two-tiered privacy regime whereby wealthier people paid for services with money while poorer (and probably younger) people paid by forking over their personal information for advertisers. Facebook’s incentive to protect users’ personal data would only be weakened by the understanding that the data was coming largely from people with less economic and social standing in the world. Advertisers would also pay less to reach these people, higher-end advertising clients would flee, and a vicious cycle could ensue—whereby the free version of Facebook became infested with the likes of payday lenders and penny auctions.

There are at least two alternative ways of viewing our relationship to Facebook that hold more promise for making that relationship a healthier and less exploitive one. The first is to view ourselves as customers of Facebook, paying with our time, attention, and data instead of with money. This implies greater responsibility on both sides. If we understood that Facebook and other “free” online services exact real costs to things we value, we might use them more sparingly and judiciously. We might finally grasp that every time we grant new data permissions or sign on to a new privacy policy, we’re almost certainly giving up a lot. Even if we don’t have time to read the whole thing, let alone comprehend it, we could equate it in our minds to spending hundreds of dollars—and then make better decisions about whether that specific app or update is still worth it to us. Ideally this formulation of users as customers forces on Facebook and other apps the responsibility of earning their loyalty, convincing them that their service is worth the tradeoffs, and not violating their trust.

The second is to view ourselves as part of Facebook’s labor force. Just as bees labor unwittingly on beekeepers’ behalf, our posts and status updates continually enrich Facebook. But we’re humans, not bees, and as such we have the capacity to collectively demand better treatment. The technologist and activist Jaron Lanier, carrying this analogy to its logical conclusion in the book Who Owns the Future?, suggested that users of Facebook and other data-hungry online services rise up and demand actual monetary compensation for their data. That seems a little far-fetched, but at the very least citizens and their representatives in governments should demand more robust protections and legal rights. The European Union’s new privacy law, the General Data Protection Requirement, could be viewed as akin to a bill of worker’s rights for users of online services.

What the “labor force” metaphor captures, in contrast to either the “customer” or “product” ones, is that people can’t always simply opt out of Facebook. Many of us depend on it, just as workers depend on their employers or clients, which evokes the logic of collective action rather than the logic of consumer choice.

How about this, then, as an (admittedly ungainly) alternative to that overused maxim: “If you aren’t paying for it with money, you’re paying for it in other ways.” Whether it’s your time, your privacy, or your intellectual property, you’re giving over to Facebook something of value every time you use it. That’s especially true anytime you use it in a new way—whether that’s signing up for a new app, accepting updated Terms of Service, or even just trying a new feature, like Facebook Watch, which inevitably generates for Facebook fresh behavioral data and enhances its understanding of you.

And if this seems to put too much of the burden of responsibility on the individual user, let’s remember that each of us can relate to Facebook in other ways than just that of the consumer. We can relate to it as laborers with the ability to go on strike. We can relate to it as activists—or, in Schoolman and Serra’s case, protest artists—with the power to publicly criticize or boycott, and influence those around us. And, crucially, we can relate to it in our capacity as citizens of a state that has the power to enforce constraints on its behavior. That is, we can call on our leaders and representatives in government to take action on our behalf.

If we don’t like how Facebook is treating us, we shouldn’t throw up our hands and call ourselves the product of a system over which we have no control. We should act like people—customers, workers, citizens, whatever—who have the power to demand change.