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Are you really Facebook’s product? The history of a dangerous idea (slate.com)
86 points by lisper on Apr 27, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 91 comments

Convoluted piece that uses a lot of words to say very little and ends up being (yet another) defense of “social” media and its billionaire owners.

It matters little if Facebook users, their attention-span or their data trail and the content they churn out are the “product”....Facebook’s business model (data, data and more data) requires the company to maximize the time users spend browsing, reading and clicking through its network.

As we have seen, the company has no problem with using people’s psychology against them to achieve this. And the company’s devious and underhanded tricks (like its data mining “security app”) designed to Hoover up as much information as possible are legendary.

Multiple studies show “social” media use is detrimental to people’s psychological wellbeing and these companies not only own the channels billions use to communicate daily, they own the CONTENT of those communications. With FB and Google/Alphabet cozying up to the DoS, DoD and intelligence services...and deploying algorithms to limit “fake news” (i.e. any and all information that challenges the status quo) these companies have way too much power.

They are a menace to our societies and need to be busted up and regulated.

> the company has no problem with using people’s psychology against them to achieve this

I'm playing devil's advocate, but the same could be said of most companies. It's the basis of marketing. Using people's psychology to sell them products or ads, which most of the time aren't really good (or even harmful, like sodas, tobacco, junk food) for them.

The same research findings exist for television. Shall the studios be busted and up and regulated into the ground, or are you just an apologist for Big Media and its billionaire owners? (What an awful rhetorical tactic...)

This is just not correct and at best a very simplistic view of reality.

Instagram which uses no smart algorithms to speak of is the social network that is responsible for most depressions not FB.

You need to be able to answer why that is before you can start making FB responsible for things that they aren't really.

The real danger is our own vanity not clever algorithms from FB.


.... what? This is patently false. The instagram feed is no longer sorted chronologically, and hasn't been for some time. The ads they show you also definitely depend on "smart algorithms". The follow suggestions they give you, the content that populates the explore feed... all definitely derived by "smart algorithms".

Compared to FB the algorithms are not even close to being smart and thats the point. Even when it was sorted chronologically Instagram was known for being a kind of depression factory and if you look at all the studies done about social media and it's effect it's not which item the algorithms show but the fact that everyone is posting "perfect lives" and have been known for some time now.

I can't think of a more illustrative example than the fact that some magazine companies will keep on sending you magazines even after you cancel and stop paying them, on purpose, so they can still list you as a subscriber.

You're worth more as an advertising target than you are as a customer. I'd be willing to bet that their own advertising departments are more interested in increasing the advertising value of the subscribers that do respond than it is in actually selling subscriptions.

There’s truth in this when many publications will offer an entire year’s worth of print for $5-$10.

I'm surprised the article doesn't mention Richard Stallman's essays on Facebook. That's the first place I saw this idea expressed. (He calls users of Facebook "useds".)

often i have longed for a way to convince stallman that the smug pseudo-clever tone evinced by his word games pushes away more people than it attracts. alas

If you believe that the major danger of Facebook is that it allows people to easily be manipulated, then sugar coating your true meaning to be more appealing may just be counter to your purpose.

words directly affect thought. while some substitutions can be overkill, it can still help the reader better perceive the precise thought the writer wants.

this idea is at the core of books like 1984, for example.

I like Stallman’s emphasis. Considering how resistant people tend to be to the idea of not using Facebook, underscoring that they’re being sold is an important point. And not for the purposed of exerting control like 1984’s.

I feel like that guy has a public attraction ceiling. He's better doing himself.

Stallman's juvenile demeanor detracts from the perception of his message.

Calling rap music "c...rap", calling them useds instead of users, the gravmass stuff, writing diatribes about not wearing ties, not to mention eating his toe jam on camera that one time... He's a kook and will never be taken seriously.

Like it or not we are superficial beings and culture carries with it certain norms that must be adhered to if we wish to maintain broad spectrum appeal or credibility.

It's not enough to have good ideas.

I think RMS would disagree with you. He considers his cause to have been successful beyond his wildest dreams. Reading his biography paints a stark picture of a tech landscape being increasingly dominated by corporate interests.

His organization offered another way. He never thought it would get off the ground, but it turned out that corporations are desperate to save a buck and are more than willing to work with free software in order to do it. The GPL was the first keystone, his advocacy helped to popularize it.

His choice of appealing to nerds like him was perfect, and his kook persona where he doesn't bother trying to button up his rougher edges is far more convincing than any amount of sanitizing ever would be.

More to the point, Stallman is insanely smart, and is more accomplished than probably anybody posting on HN, including even pg. He didn't stop being smart just because he became notable.

Spot on. Often being unconventional is more effective than being likable.

You're not wrong, but neither is rms. The little boy pointing out that the emperor's new clothes are non-existent is no less right for breaking social mores, but is rather less likely to actually be paid attention to.

This is so, but RMS undercuts himself by declaiming with authority on matters of opinion as if they were matters of fact.

"c...rap" is the most obvious example of this cited upthread. de gustibus non est disputandum, man; spend more time talking about more objective things with objective tone.

There's no chance that you (nor I) will ever have as much serious effect on the world as RMS.

"You know, Facebook's free. If something’s free, that means you’re the product."

Even when a product is not free, you are still the product. I'm pretty sure Walmart is selling my purchase information to advertisers.

Only if you is part of their loyalty program.

...or if you shop with a credit or debit card, or if you typically carry the same mobile phone with you most times you shop, or if you often purchase prescription medicine there, or if they ever get that facial-recognition cluster to work... this can be based on any somewhat durable identifier.

But they aren't selling it to the best of my knowledge.

Why not? It isn't because they don't like money. If they aren't selling such data (which is not clearly the case) it's because they judge that they can put it to more valuable use themselves.

I don't think they are allowed to sell it. They are however allowed to use it.

But they are allowed to sell data based on loyalty programs? That would be a weird regulation.

That actually make more sense since you consent to a bunch of things. But I don't even think they do that. As I said they use it internally instead (for what to order etc) they aren't allowed to send your data and your purchasing patterns to 3rd party.

The Television "Nielsen Family" model has evolved from opt-in and we'll pay you to Default opt-in. No compensation.

In all fairness, there is zero setup and overhead to use Internet services, whereas Neilsen families had to fill out daily usage logs and install special TV interfaces.

Twice in the last decade Nielsen has paper mailed me wanting to collect TV viewing information over a future week. They even included a $5 bill in the mailing with promise of more at the end. I was rather excited since finally Futurama and Stargate could have some support.

But when it became time to fill out the logbook I couldn't actually do it. I finally figured out they couldn't care less what TV I watched, and were actually trying to work out what ads I had watched that had aired at most in the previous 24 hours. Kinda difficult information to provide when using DVDs, Netflix, and having cut the cord many years before. There was nowhere to even say that you watched stuff on Netflix. You could only supply channel names and times!

(They also never bothered to check their help email worked, which it didn't. They apologised several weeks later.)

Sometime in early 2000, I decided I was watching too much television, so I just stopped, completely. I was actively avoiding watching any television. I was a few months into that when I got my one and only invitation to be a Nielsen person. I told them in advance that I gave up watching television a few months before, and I didn't plan on watching anything in the near future. They said sure, that was fine. So I got a log book and, of course, at the end of each month or whatever, I wrote 0,0,0... everywhere. After six months, I was not renewed as a Nielsen person. :-) I did watch election night 2000 and the whole hanging chad period, and eventually I was watching some again.

I have begun wondering aloud about whether the social media era is our closest approach as a species to telepathy.

And while hardly a (modern) sci-fi maven, I never encountered any works that tried to step through how a species would achieve telepathy.

The stories I read that had telepathic species glossed over their transformation, usually with some variant on the phrase, "It wasn't pretty."

A lot of words here to basically say “yeah it’s true but it’s not original and is kind of mean.”

The concern of users becoming the product when using an ad-based business model was discussed in a 1995 paper presented at the Third International World-Wide Web conference:

"The design of a medium strongly affects the revenue model that is applied to that medium. Entrepreneurs will seek an appropriate way of creating a revenue constrained and encouraged by the media technology. One example of this relationship can be discovered through examining the different variations of the television medium. The traditional technology of broadcast made it difficult for content creators to charge individual viewers for selecting a program. This lead to revenue sought via advertising, based on making the viewers the product rather than the customers, and resulted in bland programming in an attempt to get as large an audience as possible to sell to advertisers. The technology of cable television and scrambling made it easier to charge for subscription or pay-per-view, causing more directed programming towards smaller audiences. [...] The revenue model has implications for what content will be made available on a medium as well as the quality of that content. Web technology designers can strongly impact which revenue models will be used on the web. Creating alternative revenue models is important to avoid the application of potentially harmful revenue models due to a lack of alternatives."


It took a generation, but I think that a big chunk of society learned to be wary of big media's outsized influence enabled by television. Most people I knew as a young adult had basically completely eschewed television with decent notions of its effects and annoyances.

The internet, on the other hand was something new. Fresh, unfiltered and unmanipulated... Until recently, now it's just the same shit but exponentially more insidious.

Where's Sidney Lumet when we need him?

"I want you to go to your keyboards, throw open your windows and get MAD. I want you to scream goddamnit, I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"

Does anyone know any investors I can pitch to? I'm actually serious about a social media platform that pays users to use it.

It's a totally shameless clone of facebook. We'll collect user data, monetize it, track people, everything. The whole 9 yards.

The only difference is that we'll take the profit and share it with users after we take a fair share for ourselves. Users will love it because they get paid for it. Advertisers will love it because the users will have extra cash to buy shit with.

Everybody wins.

The most famous quote about Facebook isn’t actually about Facebook—it’s about television.

Worth rereading David Foster Wallace's "E Unibas Pluram" (1993), which is largely about our codependent relationship with TV and how it will inevitably metamorphose into a similar relationship with other forms of media: https://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf

I suspect that if Will Oremus wrote a shorter version of that post on reddit or HN, he'd get downvoted to oblivion. The meme of "if you're not paying for it, you're the customer not the product" has become a moral chorus.

I'm ok with repeating that meme as a defensive mental checkpoint. Say it to remind oneself to limit data as much as possible to prevent its monetization for Facebook's advantage.

However, I also understand the author's point that it's a thought-stopping soundbite that miseducates people on the economics of multi-sided platforms. The "you're the product" labels us as sheeple. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have another neutral word to describe audiences as quasi-non-paying-customers. Another example other than Facebook might be jazz festivals in the USA.

A lot of jazz festivals organized by cities have free attendance. If the attendees don't pay, how do they pay the musicians? The cities rent space to vendors in the park to sell food and drinks. It's so critical that they sell enough food & drinks to break even (or make a small profit) that they make rules preventing attendees from bringing in their own food.[1]

It's a multi-sided economy: (1) the attendees, (2) the musicians, (3) the vendors, and (4) the city

The interesting point is that when I was growing up and attending these free festivals every year, nobody said, "you know at the Jazz Festival, you're not the customer, you're the product." There was no derogatory meme like that for those shows. (Even if there was, most of us would still go because we want to go see Herbie Hancock play piano.)

There is a similarity between jazz festival attendees and Facebook users ... the consumers of free services in a multi-sided exchange ... but we don't seem to have a non-derogatory label for it.

[1] http://www.nejazzwinefest.org/festival-dos-and-donts.html

This is a good analogy. Near the bottom of my piece I propose, "If you're not paying for it with money, you're paying for it in some other way." Admittedly that's fairly clunky.

In a critique of my piece on Twitter, NY Magazine's Max Read suggests, more succinctly: "There's no such thing as a free lunch" https://twitter.com/max_read/status/989893433639755776

That bit of folk wisdom isn't going to wow anybody in a TED Talk, but I think it's more apt than "you're the product."

Or how about “If you are’t paying with money, you’re paying with time or attention”

>The "you're the product" labels us as sheeple.

Why? I use a lot of services knowing that they are spying on me and selling my data. In those cases I think the service is worth it.

You don't need to be some kind of sheep to make this economic decision. The sooner people realize that we truly are the product in these circumstances (and other non-online activities) the better as they'll be more educated in respect to what they're choosing to be part of. Sugar coating it or bringing up its complexity doesn't really help. That saying is perfectly valid as-is and should be a message worth promoting. Hemming and hawing about it not being totally accurate doesn't seem to be helping things.

Except that free jazz festivals aren't public venture-backed companies with every incentive to grow and maximize profit. If they were, they'd also extract a lot more out of you, and more aggressively, in order to compensate for the free attendance.

The organizers of a free jazz festival don't record your attendance, what you bought, how often you went to the bathroom or who you went with.

That's correct but you're not playing along with the analogy. Analogies are not meant to be exactly the same.

The analogy for the jazz festival is that the hungry & thirsty attendees in a "walled-garden" of the park are offered up as so-called "products" to the vendors to be sold food & drink. Hence, "You Are The Product".

If we want to dismantle the analogy in the direction of Facebook, we could complain that "Facebook doesn't sell food & drink to the web surfer so I don't see how the jazz festival applies."

Well, that's how analogies work. You have to look for the commonalities instead of the differences.

Analogies are good at explaining difficult to understand concepts but shouldn't be used to arrive at decisions or axioms. Each situation or argument should be evaluated on its own. In other words, whilst the jazz festival and facebook models are analogously similar, just because you accept one as harmless doesn't mean the other isn't harmful.

>, just because you accept one as harmless doesn't mean the other isn't harmful.

I never said Facebook isn't harmful. My analogy was not an apologetic defense of Facebook. It's unfortunate that I can't even discuss Facebook in an intellectual and detached manner without first prefacing it with the "Facebook-is-my-enemy" street credentials first.[1][2] I've never had a Facebook account and I never will.[3]

My analogy is specifically about "product" being a label that (unintentionally) makes people dumber, not smarter, about the economics of multi-sided markets. I found it fascinating that attendees to music festivals were not hammered with the pejorative label "you are the product" -- even though that's what they were. The analogy points out that to "get something for free" in a multi-sided market, an indirect payment has to be made to make that happen -- and it happens in other businesses besides Facebook.

[1] Previously wrote that Facebook is a "devolves into a worthless waste of time": https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16360609

[2] Previously wrote that Facebook drives people apart instead of bringing them together: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15676544

[3] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14397109

In Singapore they would. Also, Singapore is crazy.

In fact... now that I think about it, that’s a good way to describe the whole place, it’s like if Disney and Facebook made a city/state.

Or as William Gibson called it, "Disneyland with the Death Penalty."


Ironically another example of the “thought-stopping soundbite”.

Also, as someone who actually lives in Singapore, I can tell you for certain that SlowRobotAhead is spouting complete nonsense.

Oh i have no doubt if you live there you forget about each MRT station surrounded by 25 cameras, the 5 police men patrol groups with two carrying full auto MP5s, that it’s in some way OK to require an $80,000 permit just to buy a car, the police that wear body armour in the most seriously controlled country in the world, the complete and utter dependence on the state. I totally get how those things blend in and seem normal at a point, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.

Don’t get me wrong I was fascinated by SG, but it’s not real. Not real in the same way say NYC or Tokyo are real. It’s beautiful, but it’s the air conditioned city top to bottom inside and out.

I’ve spent enough time there and around the world to know what I was looking at. Beautiful though.

I don’t see anything in your comment that pertains to “... what you bought, how often you went to the bathroom or who you went with”, so yeah, still spouting nonsense.

The police here don’t wear body armor, by the way. Where did you hallucinate that from?

$80k permits — have you seen the goddamn traffic in Novena on a weekend? Oh, never mind, you’ve “spent enough time” here. Obviously.

Air conditioned city — is that supposed to be a jab? It’s as if you’ve forgotten that we’re right at the equator. Look up a map sometime.

I think it’s an over correction for the reality distortion fields these companies project surrounding their purpose.

Its also interesting people are quick to blame social media for polarization. It plays its part, but I think it plays less a role as say shows like john oliver and the daily show. The audience spends 30 minutes having their opinion spit back to them by making others that disagree with them come from the point of view of bafoons. usually by means taking things out of context.

It seems pretty nonsensical to claim a show that merely repeats the opinion of people somehow polarises opinions. If people are just there to hear what they already think they can hardly become more polarised, and if people get their opinions influenced then by necessity they heard new things.

Further, people have indeed been influenced by media before facebook, but to deny the extremist recruitment that happens trough it seems just foolish.

Access to users is the product, not the users themselves IMHO.

What's the difference in practice?

The difference in practice is mostly in security: neither advertisers or publishers on Google or Facebook actually possess your data, so it can't be leaked by breaching any of those companies. You'd have to breach Google or Facebook themselves.

It also means advertisers can’t miss appropriate your data (this could be part of the security thing). So I can’t say I want to know what themaguffinman’s been searching and google will send me a list of his searches for $50. When people say selling your data that’s the image I get even though it is compleatlly in accurate.

If I'm the product then I'm a lousy one for anyone buying it - since I have FB filtered down to just show friends posts.

I disagree. Facebook makes their money from advertisers. The advertisers go where people are, but they are also careful about paying. For example if their product is only applicable to one gender, but the ads would go to everyone then they'd want to pay half as much. Sites that do not have demographic information about their users consequently can't charge anywhere near as much as Facebook which gets advertisers to pay more for the demographics they want.

Even if everything in your FB profile is a lie, your friends then provide the demographic information about you. eg you are going to similar to them.

And because you are on Facebook, you are now available to the advertisers.

You probably still view ads on the Facebook platform, though, right? You may not contribute much to Facebook's analytics platform, but you're still making them money when they display ads.

Still, you get tracked on your interests online. Those get cross-checked with those of your friends, their friends, your age-group, the area you live in, your other hobbies, etc. providing useful information.

Being in their web has value for them, even if you consciously try to avoid being of value.

Making users think they got the better of them is part of the business model. The only way to win is not to play.

You still contribute to the network effect and to legitimizing FB as a good way to keep in touch.

By analyzing what you like Facebook knows almost everything about your taste, all locations that you ever visit. Further Facebook profits on your most valuable asset in life your family and friends. Personally I find Facebook disgusting especially after Cambridge Analytics and that funded by a hedge fund owner and white first on the board of directors and you can now buy an election.

Will non-desperate FB employees continue to want to work for a company with a poor reputation amongst the press?[1]

Will internet users outside of HN begin to reflect on what Facebook is doing behind the scenes? Will they care?

An executive from a large data broker was recently quoted as saying users care more about "relevance" than they do about "privacy". Is this true?

How would we ascertain what users care about? Would we ask them?

Is Facebook's internet.org the modern equivalent of "free AOL CDs" for the underdeveloped world?[2]

Is it true that 91% of Facebook's revenue comes from mobile apps and only 9% is from laptop/desktop?[3]

Does this explain why Brian Acton advised users to "delete" Facebook, i.e. delete the mobile app?

For example, when users non-interactively export data, e.g. photos, using mbasic.facebook.com via laptop/desktop each evening while they are sleeping, then upload the data to their mobile device and view the data outside of any Facebook-controlled app, free from any advertising or tracking, including while offline. Does this contribute to Facebook revenue?

1. See, e.g.,

The stupefying pointlessness of Facebook's political theatre http://www.wired.co.uk/article/facebook-cambridge-analytica-...

Breaking up with Facebook: Users confess they're spending less time https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2018/02/13/breaking...

They think it's over: Zuckerberg's former mentor says Facebook will get away with everything https://qz.com/1263785/they-think-its-over-zuckerbergs-forme...

Facebook Finds It Harder to Get More People to Log On https://www.bloomberg.com/gadfly/articles/2018-04-25/faceboo...

'Facebook is a morality-free zone': tech chief lambasted by MP https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/26/facebook-mo...

Facebook warns investors that more Cambridge Analyticas are likely https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/26/facebook-warns-investors-tha...

Facebook's Zuckerberg faces formal summons from MPs http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43906956

Top programmers will leave Facebook and Google if they gain 'evil' reputations https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/27/top-programmers-...

Facebook Launches a New Ad Campaign With an Old Message https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-launches-a-new-ad-campa...

Facebook: Crisis? What crisis? Look at our revenue, it's fantastic https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/04/26/facebook_results/

Brit MPs brand Facebook a 'great vampire squid' out for cash https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/04/27/facebook_schroepfer...

Facebook CTO says sorry journalists feel firm is trying to suppress the truth https://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-privacy-britain-...

2. See, e.g.,

Facebook's Internet.org has connected almost 100M to the 'internet' https://techcrunch.com/2018/04/25/internet-org-100-million/

100 Million People Are Connected to Facebook's Walled-Garden Internet https://gizmodo.com/100-million-people-are-connected-to-face...


Mobile advertising represents 91% of Facebook's ad revenue http://www.marketing-interactive.com/mobile-advertising-repr...

> “Television delivers people” was not about data privacy. It was about the medium’s impact on culture and politics. Serra and Schoolman’s critique was that TV placed the interests of advertisers over those of viewers in a subtle but deeply insidious way: by purveying content and ads that perpetuated the consumerist status quo, deadening free thinking and dampening activism. The big networks would never produce a show that threatened the interests of corporate America, they reckoned, because it was corporate America that they ultimately served.

That's true, but the "critique ... that TV placed the interests of advertisers over those of viewers" easily extends to questions about data privacy.

> What people seem to mean when they say that you’re Facebook’s product is that Facebook treats you like a product—that it fails to respect your individualism, your humanity, or your long-term interests. And the implication is that this disrespect flows inevitably from the fact that you aren’t paying for Facebook’s service.

When I use it, I also mean that Facebook's incentives aren't to cater to me, but rather to itself and to a lesser extent, its advertiser-customers from which it gets its revenue. I, as a non-paying user, have little leverage to demand consideration. It loses no revenue if I leave.

> That helps to explain why Google and Facebook really don’t think of their users as their products—at least, not their main products. Their leaders have always regarded advertising, and by extension users’ attention and data, as means to the end of building the products they really care about: Google search, Google Assistant, Facebook’s news feed.

I don't buy it. Google kills products that it has trouble monetizing. They aren't labors of love, begrudgingly subsidized by advertising.

Scandals like Facebook's are finally exposing this excessively optimistic line of thinking as the lie that it is. Tech companies aren't some special kind of company, they're companies just like Ford, Goldman Sachs, Philip Morris, Boeing, etc.

> But it’s 2018, and it’s time for Facebook’s critics to move past what has become a tired cliché. There’s something nihilistic about telling people they’re the product of a gigantic corporation and there’s nothing they can do about it. “You are the product” paints us as powerless pawns in Facebook’s game but gives us no leverage with which to improve our predicament.

This is BS. There's plenty they can do: they can disengage, they can find alternative services better suited to them, etc. It's only nihilistic if you think you have no choice except to use Facebook and play its game.

> There are at least two alternative ways of viewing our relationship to Facebook that hold more promise for making that relationship a healthier and less exploitive one. The first is to view ourselves as customers of Facebook, paying with our time, attention, and data instead of with money....The second is to view ourselves as part of Facebook’s labor force. Just as bees labor unwittingly on beekeepers’ behalf, our posts and status updates continually enrich Facebook. But we’re humans, not bees, and as such we have the capacity to collectively demand better treatment.

Aaaand it's confirmed: the author thinks we have no choice except to use Facebook and play its game, so we should try recontextualize our situation to motivate us to beg for better treatment.

In particular, I find these assertions troubling and controversial:

> "Cynics might not believe it, but Google and Facebook didn’t adopt the free model in order to serve advertisers. On the contrary, they adopted the advertising model as a way to keep serving their users for free. Google did so only with great reluctance [...]"

> "That helps to explain why Google and Facebook really don’t think of their users as their products—at least, not their main products. Their leaders have always regarded advertising, and by extension users’ attention and data, as means to the end of building the products they really care about: Google search, Google Assistant, Facebook’s news feed."

This runs contrary to all we know about these companies. For example, "common sense" knowledge about Google has always been that it's primarily an advertising company that happens to do search very well and is technologically innovative. Now, common sense is wrong often enough that it's reasonable to question it now and then, but what evidence has the author to support his assertions? I'd be interested to know if there's any actual evidence that Facebook and Google would ditch advertising if they could (instead of it being their primary business).

I find the author makes several extraordinary and unsupported assertions which contradict all we thought we knew about these companies. He may very well be right, but he really should support these assertions.

You're right, I probably could have done a better job citing sources on these claims. You can read about Larry Page and Sergey Brin's early anti-ads stance in any number of books about Google, or in their own published paper that first introduced the idea for Google: http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html

I summarized a lot of the literature in this article a while back about how Google landed on its business model: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/when_big_businesses_w...

See in particular John Battelle's "The Search" (2005), Steven Levy's "In the Plex" (2011), and Doug Edwards' "I'm Feeling Lucky" (2011).

As for Facebook, there's probably less public documentation but I have been following/covering it from very early on and personally know a few of its earliest employees. Ads have never been Zuck's focus.

Again, as I say in this piece, the fact that these companies didn't set out to become advertising/surveillance juggernauts doesn't excuse anything. They absolutely are. But I raised this point about their mission and origins to help explain why it seems obvious to those companies' leaders that customers' data is not their primary product.

Thanks for the reply! I assure you my comment wasn't made in bad faith.

By the way, I do agree with this other statement you made:

> "The pithiness that makes “you are the product” so quotable risks obscuring the complex pact between Facebook and its users, in ways that make social media’s problems seem inevitable and insoluble. They’re not—but if we want to fix them, the first thing we need to do is redefine our relationship."

I don't have much faith in Facebook's "pact" with its users, but I do agree the fatalistic mindset of "this is the way things are, and you are a fool if you expect otherwise" (implied by "you are the product") is worse than useless: it trains us to accept a rather unacceptable state of things.

What if "all we know", "all we thought we knew" is the problem ?

There is a really telling and truthful scene in the Social Network movie about that, when Saverin wants to introduce ads and sponsoring opportunities way too early and Zuck refuses.

Former-employees-turned-critics like the author of the "Chaos Monkeys" book also agree with that : I'm paraphrasing but he says 2 important things : 1) that the ads sales organization within FB often felt neglected because Zuck initially really, really didn't care or understand this industry. Sheryl basically ran that, and still does to some extent 2) They were really serious about "make the world more open and connected" mantra internally. It's a genuinely mission driven company (and I'm sure recent controversies must have made huge waves)

I'm a former Facebook engineer. For sure, and especially since the IPO, it's definitely become an ads company, no point denying that. But it's also very fair to say it wasn't built to be one.

Same goes for Google really : who believes Larry & Sergei were thinking "let's build an advertising behemoth !" when they came up with PageRank in a Stanford dorm ?

Most ideas that became big weren't built from the get go with money as the end goal. That's just what follows after success.

> What if "all we know", "all we thought we knew" is the problem

This is entirely possible and I acknowledged it in my post! I was mostly asking for evidence (and, I admit, expressing some skepticism).

> Most ideas that became big weren't built from the get go with money as the end goal

Agreed! To be honest, I'm more interested in the viable business stage than in the "two guys in a dorm" stage. I assume the people who built the first TV weren't all that interested in making tons of money either. But you have a point.

Yes, I agree with all of this. I guess I was writing my explanation above at the same time you were writing this.

The author, Will Oremus, supports the assertion you highlighted in the portion of the article that you removed from your quotation with brackets and an ellipsis. In Oremus' original, the words "only with great reluctance" link to a previous article [1] by Oremus about the genesis of Google's advertising strategy, and he goes on to quote Brin and Page's 1998 paper [2] criticizing ad-funded search engines as inherently biased. The sourcing on Oremus' anecdotal knowledge of Zuckerberg's indifference to advertising is rather thin, but it's also a typical bit of color from a tech writer who, readers can assume, knows a lot of people in the industry. In any case, it strikes me as bad faith to argue that an author doesn't provide support for his assertions when you have excised some of that very support from your quote of the article.

[1] http://www.slate.com/articles/business/when_big_businesses_w...

[2] http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html

I thought that saying was pre-facebook

I first heard it about TV, which is what TFA mentions :)

ummmm....HN is free. I'm just saying...

HN is mostly non-profit (it does drive attention and reputation to Y Combinator though).

It's selling start-up founder visibility, as well as pulse-checking both the community and those who'd seeek to influence it. A recruiting bonus as well "who's hiring", and HN startup pitches.

Ads? 3rd-party tracking?

There are ads (links to job postings of YC companies). They appear like regular submissions, but you can't vote or comment on them.


Facebook’s product has always been highly targeted ad placement.

Users are in no way the product, and for people to keep saying that is grossly misrepresenting the business model and puts all sorts of weird ideas into people’s heads.

Unless you are being bought and sold you are not a product. There are people in this world who ARE products, and we should be doing everything we can to liberate them.

If someone sold my body in part or whole then they are selling me. For most people,their intimate private lives and the essence of who they are is just as important as their body.

So, if facebook collectes such intimate detail about a person and not only made it known to third parties but used that information to manipulate the person,then I would it is that person who is being traded.

Who can I claim to be without my private life,secret thoughts,desires and my identity itself? Even 19th century american slaves had some private life and kept information about themselves secret from the slave masters (of course I am not comparing their hardship,but the small privacy they had) and they were literally sold at markets.

The grand trick of the modern economy is that they have consumer behavioral psychology figured out: convince them they made the choice all on their own and take away as much of their intangible freedoms and possesions as you can -- "if you can't touch it, it isn't real"

The information Facebook collects on you isn’t for sale.

And even if was, that stuff is basically data exhaust that is collected from usage of a platform they own. By using the platform you have made the choice to give up some of this data all on your own. But that’s not what they do. Their product is selling ad space.

You yourself are still not being sold.

The ad space is worth exactly $0 without targeting. It wouldn't pay for day to day ops let along make a profit.

The advertisers are the consumers and the ability to target the consumer is the product.

Look at it this way, an actor or a singer sells himself when he works,the entertainment industry sells actors to consumers. In the same way facebook and google sell their users to advertisers.

Facebook doesn't share your personal info with third parties--at least, not with advertisers. The fact that it allowed you to hand over that information to third-party developers (not advertisers) is the root of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Facebook sells access to you, through their highly targeted advertising platform. Ads consume your mental focus, bandwidth, battery power, and screen real-estate.

You are a product, in the same way that celebrities are products.

So not at all then. You don’t buy celebrities you buy their output.

A billboard by a highway doesn’t mean that traffic is now the product. You’re selling placement.

The placement is only worth anything because of the traffic. Your distinction is not false, but is it relevant in practice?

The news is a little hypercritical with it being free and all.

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