You’ve heard the old adage: “if you’re not paying for something you’re the product being sold.” Facebook has a compelling counterpoint: “Nuh-uh.”
Okay: that’s not an exact quote. But here’s Facebook VP Rob Goldman saying basically the same thing for the Facebook Newsroom:
If I’m not paying for Facebook, am I the product?
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.
Interesting that Goldman brings up newspapers. I myself worked in the newspaper industry just long enough to learn that advertisers, not readers, are the customers. That’s who the sales team is on the phone with. That’s where the money is coming from. And ultimately, that’s who you don’t want to upset if you want to keep your job.
I imagine Facebook knows who is paying the bills, and it isn’t the users. That’s what people mean when they say that you’re the product, and it’s true of most mass media you don’t pay for: search engines, newspapers, and yes, social networks.
Interesting point about this idea: it’s not unique to the internet age. A short film made by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman in 1973 called “Television Delivers People” made basically the same point. Check it out here, complete with elevator music: