“You are the product”: one interesting source for the meme

“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:

Serra television quotes

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.

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11 Responses to “You are the product”: one interesting source for the meme

  1. David Knapp says:

    I have for some time felt this notion could be extended to the grocery and retail world where maybe the real money is made in the consumer collected data and not the cans/objects on the shelves. I relinquished my customer role when I stopped using cash and was bullied/harassed/shamed into using store shopping cards.

  2. Such a great essay — the only attempt I’ve seen at historicizing the phrase! What you’ve done in particular is to make me think more about the concept of a “customer.” When we say that those who don’t pay aren’t customers, we’re assuming that agency and rights depend on a specific financial transaction and that being a “product” essentially removes any real agency or claim to rights. But most advertising is highly transactional, and I think most viewers understand that they are giving their valuable attention to ads in order to get something of value in return. That’s why boycotting a form of media (or social media) can be meaningful. A product can’t really boycott its producer! And people’s discomfort with, say, Facebook, might not be so much about the fact that their attention is being monetized as with the suspicion that they are giving away more (or different) value than Facebook implied. That might be better described as a fraudulent relationship with customers than as a product suddenly realizing its own nature. Up till now, I had parroted the customer/product line without really thinking about it!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you very much, Ian!

    • David Soliday says:

      Thank you, Ian!

      The notion of products waking up to their true nature is a bit jarring, yet a refreshing, insightful perspective. I’m reminded of slavery and the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker signs that simply said, “I am a MAN.” We may not be products, but others may view us as such. The discomfort realizing that more and more of what we thought was ours is being monetized (and where’s my cut of that–where are my royalties??) parallels the social discomfort realizing that more and more of our public sphere is being / has been gobbled up by corporations.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        We are monetized… but our response is interesting. We speak in neoliberal terms, how we should be paid.

        I’m tempted to go back to Marx on alienation here.

  3. Grant says:

    regarding your observation, “American culture romanticizes or naturalizes older technology when confronted with new tech.”

    Some intersections with this article I read recently https://thebaffler.com/salvos/404-page-not-found-wagner

    “Nostalgia, I’m reminded, is profitable—it remains one of the easiest to execute and cheapest grifts of neoliberal culture.”

  4. I agree with the notion that ‘people as product’ has been around for quite a while. I haven’t studied or read Marshall McLuhan, but these Brainy Quotes sound similar:

    “The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium–that is, of any extension of ourselves–result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”


    “Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.”

    I’ve heard (also not studied) that, in the beginning of television, there was a struggle between those who wanted it to be reserved for art & culture and those who wanted to use it for marketing & revenue. I know that a similar struggle has occurred in the video gaming industry, with the concurrent debate over whether video games can even be considered “art”.

    Another McLuhan quote appeals to me as the crux of the matter: “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” I’ve always seen the computer as the first tool devised by humans to be function independent. In other words, a hammer is always a hammer, and its uses are limited to its physical shape and our imagination. A computer is always asking us–with a blinking cursor or now in speech–where would you like to go today? What tool would you like me to be now?

    The problem with that is that now we’re dependent on developers that we have little to no influence over. The whole sphere of human (individual and social) power dynamics is being played out on the World Wide Web and social networks, which are by and large unregulated. (Remember when porn had the largest market share of the internet?)

    Or, my activist minister perspective says it’s all a choice between Empire and Beloved Community. That view is now widely held by folks working to build resilient communities in the face of climate change, as mass consumer culture is killing the planet. More people need to wake up to this and to how we’re being manipulated…

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      David, thank you for these comments. You show just how much deeper this idea goes.

      I do like your minister’s idea.

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