“You are the product.”
In a talk last Friday at the dConstruct conference, design luminary Don Norman repeated an increasingly popular refrain about Google: “[In] fact, the advertisers are the users and you are the product.” It’s the kind of glib soundbite that certain bloggers can’t resist, but collapses on close scrutiny.
The argument goes something like this: You are only truly a company’s customer if you pay them directly for products or services. Google users don’t pay Google directly, therefore Google users are not Google customers, but products that Google sells to advertisers. The logic that underlies this argument is that a user must be a customer or a product, never both, and the implication is that it’s bad to be a ‘product.’
The sentiment wouldn’t be compelling if it didn’t have some kernel of truth. It’s certainly true that any advertising-based business model has a different relationship with its users than a more traditional one that sells products directly to customers. But the dichotomy between customer and product is a false one, and it’s precisely the incentive structure of the ad-based model that shows it to be false.
Ultimately, the argument is one about accountability. Apple, to take an obvious example, is accountable to its customers because customers pay them. Their incentive is to make the highest quality product so that customers keep paying for them. Google, the argument goes, is not accountable to its users, because the users don’t pay Google. It takes only a moment’s consideration to realize that this line of reasoning is facile at best, and actively dishonest at worst. Because of course Google is still accountable to its users, just not through direct monetary transactions. Google is accountable to its users because advertisers won’t pay if they don’t have users. Google is also accountable to advertisers, but that doesn’t negate its accountability to its users. It still needs happy users to make money.
It’s really an argument against advertising in general, and ignores the fact that advertising has historically enabled the production of all kinds of media, from network television shows to newspapers, to magazines to ahem tech blogs,[^1] that would otherwise have been impossible. It ignores the fact that Google, specifically, has given the world access to a mindbogglingly useful utility (its search engine) for free, supported by ads that are often actually useful. And that’s not to mention all the other amazing products that Google offers for free.
There are certainly trade-offs. Because Google can target ads better with more information, it has an incentive to gather as much data about its users as possible. But this incentive has always existed for media companies like newspapers and magazines. Information about the subscribership was always more valuable than the subscriptions themselves, because publishers as a matter of course sold their subscribers’ information to advertisers. At least Google just uses the data internally to target ads. This data-gathering incentive will always leave Google at a point on a spectrum of privacy that some people will consider invasive and others won’t mind.[^2]
But it’s not like a direct transaction business doesn’t have some bad incentives. Apple, as a vendor, wants to extract as much money as possible from its customers. Most of the time this incentive translates to creating high-quality products. But sometimes it translates to hindering competition through artifical extra-market means like patent litigation. Apple also has the incentive to produce its products as cheaply as possible. Most of the time this incentive translates to making its operations as efficient as possible. But sometimes it translates to sacrificing worker conditions. These are both controversial issues, but my point is that there are good and bad incentives in any business model, and there are plenty of examples of abuse in both.
I think it’s easy for rich people to say things like “you are the product.” But I don’t think most people, even having considered all the implications, consider themselves products. I certainly don’t. We just think of ourselves as paying for the products with alternative currency, and we’re glad that we can avail ourselves of these products in exchange for resources that we have in great supply: our attention and our information.
The incentives are real. Some are good and some are bad. They can be useful to point out as explanatory forces for real practices, but without evidence of real malfeasance, sentiments like “you are the product” are just empty rhetoric.
[^1]: The most dishonest part about someone like John Gruber making this argument is that Daring Fireball is, of course, wholly ad-supported.
[^2]: To a large degree, I find Google’s gathering of my information – my personal data, my browsing habits, my interests – to be mostly inoffensive. Keeping that information secret doesn’t do me much good, but Google can aggregate my data with that of others and make it hugely useful. That’s pure wealth creation as far as I’m concerned.