Recent headlines and revelations are causing a lot of us to think deeply about the apps we use, and especially the ones categorized as social media. We are beginning to question whether they are as beneficial and essential to our lives as perhaps we once assumed. As I’ve thought more and more about my apps and my commitment to them, two questions have been both challenging and illuminating. I’ll apply them to Facebook since it is the most prominent and wide-reaching social media app, but they apply as well to the many competitors.
Here’s the first question: How much did you pay for that app? This is a good question to ask because it helps clarify the relationship between the user of the app and its creator.
In general, we exchange money for the goods and services we want. If we want electricity, we expect to receive an electric bill; if we want cable, we expect to receive a cable bill; if we want to read a book or magazine, we expect to have to pay a few dollars for the privilege. But that app that commands so much of your attention and claims so much of your time, how much have you paid for it? I expect you’ve never paid a cent.
Facebook has 25,000 employees and an army of contractors, each of whom expects to be paid at the end of the month. If you’re not giving them money, who is? What’s the product they sell and who is their customer? Simplistically but essentially, you are the product and advertisers are the customers. Facebook sells you to advertisers. More properly, they sell the right to influence you. This is not a unique relationship and has been the backbone of television and newspaper advertising for years. What makes Facebook so much more powerful is that they specialize in collecting massive amounts of massively personal information and then allowing advertisers to carefully target people based on it. It’s their endless quest to gain information about you through countless thousands of pieces of data that have made them so successful and made their founder one of the richest men on earth.
Because you don’t give money to Facebook, advertisers do. Because you don’t exchange money with Facebook, you exchange information which is then used to target and influence you. This isn’t necessarily bad and some of that influence may be good, helpful, and desirable. But it’s important to understand the nature of the relationship. Until you are paying in money, you’ll continue paying in information.
Here’s the second question: How much would you pay for that app? This question is useful because it clarifies what is often a vast disparity between the attention we give an app and the value we place on it.
Imagine that tomorrow Facebook announces they are turning off all the ads and instead moving to a subscription option so that by next month, you will need to pay a fee to use it. How much would you pay every month? Probably not very much. And when times get tough and belts have to be tightened, it will probably be one of the very first things to go. Now imagine that Twitter and Instagram and Messenger and Snapchat and all the rest did the same thing. How much would you pay? It’s hard to imagine using all these apps, and perhaps even any of these apps, if it came down to a financial decision.
What’s interesting to me is that for many of us, the answer to both questions is the same. How much did you pay for that app? Nothing. How much would you pay for that app? Nothing. The fact is, these apps have only gained such prominence because they have no monetary cost involved. There was a time we were willing to assume that keeping our money but giving our information was a fair trade. But many of us are now living with a measure of regret, wondering whether we’ve given away something that was actually far more valuable than we thought. It’s worth asking: If the app isn’t valuable enough that we would pay for it in money, it is valuable enough to pay for it in information and, of course, in the time and emotional energy we commit to it?