If you think you’re a customer of free online services you’re using, think again.
As Tim Wu put it in his book, “The Attention Merchants,” internet users are finally beginning “to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”
What’s he talking about?
He’s referring to what’s generally referred to as Big Data. Internet companies, especially those offering free services, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook (social media in general), learned a long time ago that an attractive “free” service attracting millions of users is a goldmine of data…an they’re not wrong.
Take Facebook, for instance. Every time you “like” something, “follow a page” or join a “group,” it adds to the digital dossier they’re compiling on you. Every conversation you have, every link you click on – it all helps shape your personality profile, making it easier to use that profile for advertisers who want to target you based on what you like.
This information is in addition to data you’ve already given to the service, such as your name, where you live (specific address or region), your political affiliation, religion beliefs…whatever fields you chose to fill in. Even if they’re set to private (where other users of the service can’t view them) doesn’t mean the service itself isn’t using them to shape your profile; they are.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, either; I use all of these services, and I even like how Amazon suggests products I may be interested in (based on my buying history and other information) or how Facebook suggests pages and articles I might like based on my browsing history (which inadvertently passes along my interests to them).
Data companies today can pinpoint market segments much more precisely than the advertisers of old (think of TV in the pre-internet era, which had to air commercials targeted at a broad swath of public, based on the broad data they had to use). Today’s marketers can pinpoint the tiniest of niches.
So remember, you’re not Facebook’s (or Google’s, or Amazon’s) customer; you’re simply the product they’re selling to advertisers. It’s up to you decide if that’s okay.