March 12, 2018

Consumer or Consumed?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

While on a hike organized by a group using the social networking site, I overheard two fellow hikers complaining that they had trouble getting messages from the group through the site. One hiker said that calling their email provider (a widely used free platform) was no help either. They were clearly frustrated by the lack of “customer service.”

This exchange was a good reminder of something that we might easily forget: we are now as likely to be the product as the consumers of technology in the information age.

Much of the technology we use via websites and apps we likely use for free. For instance, charges organizers of groups to use the platform, but not group members. (Organizers may require a fee to be a member, or in the case of the group to which I belong, many of us make annual voluntary donations to the organizer to help offset such costs). The hiker's email address is free for users but not for advertisers, whose ads are built into the platform (unless users decide to pay to remove the ads).

So technically, users of these tools are not customers, but instead are part of the product being sold to organizers and advertisers. These platforms only succeed if they can generate enough users, so they need to be user-friendly enough to attract and maintain high usage rates, but user satisfaction doesn’t need to be particularly outstanding for it to continue.

In the twentieth century model of information consumption, it was clearer that we were largely consumers: we paid for albums, magazines, newspapers, and movie tickets. Today we get a lot of this content—although certainly not all—for free, so advertising becomes even more important. In the case of advertisers, we are clearly the product.

It’s often not easy to find, but large publications often have media kits created for advertisers. People magazine provides potential advertisers with demographic information about its print edition purchasers, highlighting that more than half of their print readers have household incomes of $60,000 or more, as well as the percentage of readers in each age category. Advertisers can choose to buy ads in specific issues based on the previous year’s circulation as well.

Free social media platforms generate revenue from advertising to users, as Facebook and other social media clearly do. Along with Twitter and LinkedIn, their stock price is directly related to its user reach. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process, of course. It is just important that we be aware of our role as consumers as well as products.

Ads are mostly obvious, but there are some other ways that we have become commoditized in ways that we might not be aware of. Click bait, or outrageous sounding stories (that are often untrue) sometimes trick us into clicking onto certain sites that get revenue with every click they attract.

And those innocuous, fun personality “quizzes” that people often take on Facebook and share their results with friends? As the BBC reported in 2015, these are actually data mining schemes where users give the creator of the “quiz” access to all of their previously posted Facebook data—including everything they have ever “liked”—which can include their name, age, birthday, hometown, employer, and educational history as well as all of their friends. It is often unclear what the users do with all of the data they have access to, but as users we should be aware that we are giving people access to some of our most personal information.

Thinking about our “brand” is now commonplace for new graduates and job seekers to try and market themselves in the workplace. In this capacity we are at least somewhat conscious of our role in the marketplace of workers. But how others consume our information is often a mystery. We are reminded of the importance of our role as information producers when a data breach happens, as it did in 2017 when the credit data gathering firm Equifax had a massive hacking incident.

How else are we not just consumers of information or products, but the product to be consumed?


We need to be careful with what certain sites offer. They will do everything they just for personal gain.

This article hits the spot when it comes to information detailed. "Click bait" as I call it is all over social media just waiting to be tapped. Me personally I try to stay away from all the unrealistic promotions as it seems very unlikely that I've actually take a survey and receive a huge cash reward. Be careful what you post and what site you click on in these "free" social media apps because someone is always watching.

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