On Being the Product, Not the Customer

Published on Author Eli Fennell

We live in a world of free internet services.  Of course, we know that most of these “free” services aren’t really free, they’re ad supported or bundled with other paid services.  There is no question we will surrender privacy for the benefits of these services.  We were doing this long before the web existed.  The issue is one of meaningful consent, and a sense that it somehow benefits us to make this sacrifice of privacy for what we get from the service.

The negative reaction to Instagram’s ambiguous, might-allow-them-to-sell-your-photos-without-paying-you Terms of Service isn’t a reaction against some opportunity for Instagram users to have a better service, but a blatant money grab involving significant privacy issues and offering no apparent benefit to the user.

There are many ways Instagram could have done what they did and bought themselves good will, for example by offering to share advertising revenue with content creators (like YouTube), by offering special features to those who opt-in to the program, etc…  They could have had millions of happy little “products” instead of scores of righteously offended former users.

Blame Facebook, of course.  If Mark Zuckerberg ever knew how to polish a turd, there is no evidence for it in how he runs his company.  Watching the reaction of Facebook users to any changes to Facebook is like watching the slowest shipwreck in history: everyone keeps saying they want to abandon ship, but they can’t because they don’t want to leave anyone behind.

Capitalism is greed, but greed is no excuse for shameful dishonesty.  Your neighborhood grocery store is (hopefully) honestly greedy.  The used car salesman who turns back odometers is another matter.  Facebook is that kind of greedy, and it shows.

Instagram is backtracking, of course, after the interwebs got a bit rowdy.  Even so, it’s hard to read their new TOS and not see that it at least potentially allows them to sell your photos to advertisers without paying you, informing you, or even informing others when your content is being used in an ad.  Perhaps they will suitably alter the language, but their reputation is already tarnished regardless.

Again, compare this with YouTube, where content creators can monetize their own content, and can even choose whether to monetize pirated content uploaded by other users or simply block it.  Google is still making money from your content, but they’re being honest about it, or less dishonest at least.

Now would be a perfect time for an Instagram competitor to step in offering a social service where content creators are not only protected but can actually profit through voluntary monetizing.  In an era where content creation is becoming a commodity, to contribute your efforts without seeing the reward is a bitter pill.  After all, if I’m the product, then I deserve my share of the rewards.

That might mean a share of ad revenue.  That might just mean showing me tangible proof of how my contributions are improving the service.  Being the product is a great thing, if the companies involved treat their “product” with respect rather than exploiting us.  Being the product is powerful.  It makes companies compete with each other for you.  Being the product is better than being the customer, in fact.  Customers get treated poorly.  Customers go where the products go.  Customers pay.

We enter into an implicit pact with service providers: we promise to abide by their Terms of Service and allow them to gather certain information about us and how we use the service, and in exchange they treat our privacy with great care and use what they gather to improve the service and to make money.

As long as that pact is upheld, everyone wins: companies get to make money, and users enjoy great services.  When the pact is broken, when our identities, our voices, our creations are stolen along with our privacy by the very companies we trusted, we are no longer their products but their vassals.

So I say please, web companies: make me your product, give me all the great free stuff you create with the money you make doing it, I’m a sucker for free, but if I’m so valuable to you, treat me with respect!  That’s worth more than all the apologies under heaven.

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.