“You are not the customer. You are the product.” This phrase, or versions of it, have been popularly cited over the past few years as a criticism of social media. I think I’ve stumbled across an early version of this argument – but concerning tv, not the web.
“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” is what user blue_beetle wrote on a MetaFilter comment in 2010. (The target there was Digg.) Also in 2010 a TIME magazine blogger quoted security guru Bruce Schneier as offering this version in a speech:
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not – you’re the product,” Schneier said. “Its customers are the advertisers.”
A Lifehacker post that year turned the text into an image:
It’s a powerful phrase, a modern koan to get people rethinking their relationship to social media.
Yet it has always irked me for a variety of reasons. One is that it appears to emerge from the present without a shred of history. There have been other media and communication platforms that users didn’t immediately pay for. “Surely,” I thought, “this is how a lot of television and radio worked?” Derek Powazek makes a similar complaint.
It turns out that precursors to the meme appeared in a 1973 short film by Richard Serra. “Television Delivers People” is an entirely text-based argument that tv’s essential purpose is selling ads, and that all programming is arranged to that end. Not a wild idea, but pithily asserted in title cards like this:
Those whole film is available on social media, naturally.
Will Oremus makes the connection between Serra’s early 1970s tv and 21st-century Facebook:
It was the everyperson’s refuge, a groundbreaking technology that had morphed into a mindless escape for the masses. It was also a primary source of news, which wedged awkwardly in between the soap operas, comedies, and crime shows. As such, it was widely accused of distorting, oversimplifying, and sensationalizing the vital information of democracy in a crass bid for ratings (read: advertising dollars). Finally, it was a medium that concentrated enormous cultural power in a few corporations—ABC, CBS, and NBC.
While TV networks didn’t collect viewers’ personal data on anything like the scale that Facebook does today, they did carefully study their audience demographics and pitch those to advertisers. Facebook can show your ad to males aged 25 to 54 in Houston whose browsing habits suggest they like football; ABC’s Houston affiliate can show your ad to everyone who’s watching Monday Night Football, with roughly similar results.
QuoteInvestigator dug up some very interesting bridging references as well.
I’d like to add another citation to this history. It’s from a 2004 scholarly article about television and crime, “Crime Creep: Urban And Suburban Crime On Local Tv News,” Danilo Yanich, Journal of Urban Affairs, Volume 26, Number 5, 535–563.* In his conclusion Yanich offers this observation:
The third point that may help to explain the face of local television news is a realization that it is market-driven (Cummings, 1987; Greenfield, 1987; Kaniss, 1991; McManus, 1994; Westin, 1982). News producers construct the newscasts not so much to inform an audience as to deliver that audience to a set of advertisers. Consequently, the notion that the newscast is the product and that the audience is the customer is exactly backwards from how the system really operates. [emphasis added]
This wasn’t a case of broadcasting, at least not by the 1990s:
Further, advertisers want audiences with a particular characteristic—the greatest buying power. As a result, TV stations engage in narrowcasting (as opposed to broadcasting) in which they aim their programming at a specific target audience (Shumway, 2003). McManus characterizes this type of journalism as info-tainment where the line between information and entertainment becomes blurred and the consumer replaces the journalist as the gatekeeper regarding what becomes news (McManus, 1994). [emphasis in original]
This echoes Oremus’ point about the networks paying careful attention to audience data.
Yanich also cites a “former local television news director,” who offered this view:
A TV station makes its money from advertisers (other large businesses), not viewers. Think about it, you don’t pay the TV station every time you watch a show. In fact, you can watch the local stations for free if you don’t have cable. That means the advertiser is the real customer and the product they’re buying is . . . access to the audience to sell products (Shumway, 2003).
I’d like to say more about that very powerful article, as well as about what this meme prehistory suggests. The criticism is more about advertising and capital than about a given technology, for example. Its modern iteration might be evidence for my theory that American culture romanticizes or naturalizes older technology when confronted with new tech. However, I’m out of time. For now I just want to contribute the Danilo quote to our understanding of the “user as product meme.”
*I found it referenced in Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear (second edition), 230. The book is very good and I’ll share some notes shortly.