You are the product


Be outraged. Facebook is no longer allowing you to hide and not be found in searches. Instagram is including ads in stream and getting rid of the ability to stop auto-play. LinkedIn is selling your “endorsements”. Google is reading your email and serving you ads based on those emails. WordPress shows ads in exchange for free hosting in content to the world.

If these things bother you (and I believe they might) you must also acknowledge that all of these products and services do not cost anything upfront to use. Yes, you can argue that we are subsidizing them through our subscriptions with network providers like AT&T and Comcast, yet those companies have a more traditional business model than those in the online ether.

In the old economy, you pay for services and products in a lump sum or monthly, in cash or by financing a purchase. In the new attention-based economy (and yes, I do think it’s new), you pay incrementally with data, behaviors, and transactions over time.

Because we’re not used to the idea that we are the product, when we find our providers selling this data, we get upset. We wonder how this data (ours) could be sold to the highest bidder. Yet we created this data asset on a free platform (and willingly).

Some will say that the techniques used to get us to participate are coercive, manipulative, or downright evil. I think that the root of the issue is that we don’t control access to our own data. Today, the only way to avoid becoming a product is to avoid participating in this economy. Yet more and more economic models and businesses are being hybridized to include elements of *free* – it’s hard to opt out.

What should we do? Build alternate models: a model based on identity (and a paid one) is a good incentive to control how that identity is used and sold. Companies should offer this in the market as an alternative to *free*. If we all had an API of Me and a way to share some data that companies want to use to make us the product, we could know how the data is being used. We are the product, and now we need to learn how to shape that product in the new economy.


One thought on “You are the product

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  1. Exactly right! I think in the next 5 years we’ll see a “paid” model emerging, where Facebook, et all, will pay their subscribers for the information they provide – demographic data, reviews, affiliations, relationships, etc. My only outrage, currently, is not that Facebook has all my data, but rather the fact that Facebook’s valuation is all based on my data (and 1 billion others), yet Facebook does not give me even a minuscule share of this value. Given that Facebook’s market cap is $124B, even discounting for existing technology assets, each person’s data is worth over $100. That’s a lot of money…

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