Thesis #12

If the service is free then you are the product

Or, more accurately, your personal data, plus the digital trails you leave as you navigate the service, are the product.

Most of the most popular services we use — for example webmail (like Gmail or Yahoo mail) — are ‘free’ in the sense that we are not charged for using them. But running the infrastructure needed to provide those services on a global scale needs a lot of expensive resources. So a distinctive business model — now called ‘surveillance capitalism’ — has evolved. Companies providing ‘free’ services ‘mine’ your personal data, process and refine it, and sell it on to advertisers who use it to target advertisements at you. This is why people now say that “data is the new oil”. In that sense Google and Facebook are extractive companies — like Exxon and BP. But whereas the oil companies extract natural resources (oil and gas) from the earth, and then refine and sell it, the resources that are mined by the Internet companies are the data created by their users as they use their services.

One important difference is that whereas natural resources are, in principle, finite and will, eventually, run out — the same doesn’t apply to the resources that are ‘mined’ by the Internet companies. The supply of the data they require can be increased. The more their users access their services, follow links, ‘share’ content, etc. the greater is the volume of resource to be mined. So the imperative for the companies is to induce users to ever-greater engagement with their services. The way this is achieved is by devising applications that are, in the jargon of the industry, ‘sticky’, which is a euphemism for addictive.

Since most people now access the Internet via a smartphone, addictive applications are easier to deliver than they would be on PCs or laptops because most people always carry their smartphones with them, and most consult them more than a hundred times a day. App designers draw on research in applied psychology (for example the knowledge that variable rather than predictable rewards are more likely to increase craving) to induce user engagement.

Further reading

Shoshana Zuboff, Master or Slave?: The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, Harvard, 2017

Nir Eval, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Penguin, 2014.

Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Princeton, 1971.

Sherry Turtle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin, 2015.

Back to list