We may think that social media is ‘free’, but users are simply commodities whose value is determined not just by how many of us there are, but by the real price we are paying for social media: the amount of personal information we freely give out over the networks to companies' actual customers, their advertisers, writes Beth Ingalls.
14 August 2011
A few years back I posted a Facebook update declaring my growing annoyance with the “find singles near you” ads that seemed to be multiplying daily on the right side of my profile page. One of my self-righteous “friends” commented immediately: “Beth, you have no right to complain…Facebook is free. You have to take the bad with the good.”
His naïve and short-sighted attitude irked me, but rather than engage in a meaningless back and forth (I try to stay positive and somewhat politically neutral on my page), I’ve been mulling the “free” aspect of Facebook, Twitter and the other networking sites ever since.
Now that the dust has settled on LinkedIn’s ginormous Wall Street opening, (it was the largest internet IPO since Google and the company is now valued at $8.9 BILLION!), I’m still wondering how users can go on blindly believing that social media is still free.
I don’t know about you, but despite the fact that I’ve been using LinkedIn for more than a year, I didn’t get a personal invite to the IPO or a special offer for LNKD Series A preferred stock. That’s because to LinkedIn CEOs, users are not customers, they’re commodities.
A commodity is “a basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other commodities of the same type. Commodities are most often used as inputs in the production of other goods or services. The quality of a given commodity may differ slightly, but it is essentially uniform across producers.” Bet you felt more special than that, didn’t you?
As commodities, our value is determined not just by how many of us there are, but by the real price we are paying for social media: the amount of personal information we freely give out over the networks to companies' actual customers, their advertisers.
We pay every time we divulge our opinions, our relationship and family ties, our photos, our work history, our likes and dislikes, our emotions, our videos, our memories – and another precious resource, our time.
We all jumped on the networking bandwagon so fast with such exuberance that we threw caution to the wind – not only about what we were putting out there but who we were actually sharing it with.
I really enjoyed the movie, The Social Network. I thought it was damn good entertainment and deserving of the acclaim it received. But how could anyone have watched that biopic and not come to the conclusion that Mark Zuckerberg is the kind of person who won’t be content until he achieves total world domination?
He’s brilliant, scheming, ruthless, and clearly living out his master plan. He counts his devotees not in thousands or millions but in hundreds of millions – more than 500 million users across the globe. Of those, half log on to Facebook in any given day, have an average of 130 friends, and in total spend over 700 billion minutes per month on the site!
I know what you’re thinking. What we get out of social media is by far worth the price we’re paying – reconnecting with old friends, networking about job opportunities, staying on top of the latest news trends, building our brands and businesses, etc. I’m not advocating getting out. I love my social media. I just think an “eyes wide open approach” is the wisest course. Everything has a price and perhaps even more importantly, everything has a buyer.
Andrew Brown from the Guardian (UK) put the issue in perfect perspective in a blog post last May titled “Facebook is not your Friend”:
Ever since money was invented, the people who have made money out of aimless chat have been the landlords, whether they were selling beer, coffee or a space on the web. You may think that your Facebook friends care what you're up to, but they'd drop you like a stone if it cost them money to learn you had just become imaginary mayor of an imaginary town, or even that you had just had a row with your mother and slammed the phone down. The only people to whom that information is worth even a fraction of a penny are those who want to take advantage of it to sell you something you don't need...
I'll drink to that.
By the way, feel free to share this with your friends.
Beth Ingalls is a writer, editor, columnist, producer, parent, activist, former elected official and lifelong Deadhead. She mainly write about politics, pop culture & tech, but her dream is to work with David Simon on any of his projects.
She blogs at Open Salon.