Technology | the Web

It’s the 21st Century: get over the “You’re the Product” fallacy

December 12, 2014

It’s time to ditch the idea that, when not paying for a service, we’re the product.

Tim Cook (billionaire chief of Apple) brought it up again in September, and recently Mark Zuckerberg (billionaire chief of Facebook) got a little angry with the accusation.

These billionaires are, unsurprisingly, out of touch with the rest of us.

Zuckerberg’s response to Cook’s reminder was to accuse Apple of being out of alignment with their customers, otherwise “they’d make their products a lot cheaper!”

But Apple operate on a satisfyingly simple model: market capitalism. They charge as much as the market will stand, and are therefore by definition in alignment with their customers.

Facebook, on the other hand, can’t charge for their primary service – the social network – so they have to make their money in more subtle ways. They sell the data which our use of their website creates. The idea that we are the Product is wrong. We’re still ‘paying’ for Facebook, but in uncomfortable and creepy ways.

Get with the 21st century economy, stupid

Darien Graham-Smith identified the problem on a recent PC Pro podcast episode: the division between Facebook’s product and its customers is blurred, subtle and complex.

We’re not paying with cash, but we’re paying with attention, time and background info. It’s comparable to commercial TV and radio: we get free access in return for being exposed to adverts.

Another analogy is with Free / Open Source Software: we get it for free, but there’s an expectation that you’ll ‘pay’ by filing bugs or even contributing code if you’re able. It’s a slightly nicer, more open non-monetary exchange compared to Facebook’s, but it’s still another example of how the 21st century economy is much more varied than that of the pre-Web industrialised world. Just because we pay for Apple products with cash and Facebook’s product with data and attention doesn’t mean that one is good and the other not.

It’s time we realised that the modern Internet economy is based on much more imaginative exchanges of services and products than using cash alone. Just as the products and services we use were beyond imagination a decade ago, we’re starting to use forms of payment that we’d not previously considered.

Whether we’re happy with that is another conversation altogether.