Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"If You're Not Paying for It, You're the Product"

This blog is free in monetary terms. I don't pay a fee to an internet company; readers don't pay a fee to me.  The costs are mainly in terms of time: that is I spend time writing the blogs, and readers spend time looking them over. But while it's comforting and even partially true to think that this blog is a public service provided for my own devious reasons, the software is provided and the hosting is done by Google. Thus, I'm working without a monetary return to draw your attention to Google, and you are providing your attention to Google.

All of which serves as a reminder of a saying that I've seen repeated a number of times in various forms during last few years: "If you're not paying for it, you're the product."  Fortunately, I didn't have to track down the origins of this quotation. because the Quote Investigator website already did it last summer.

The renaissance of this sentiment seems to trade back to a comment from the Metafilter website back in 2010:
If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.posted by blue_beetle at 1:41 PM on August 26, 2010.
The comment was then picked up and amplified by other writers. Turns out that the "blue_beetle" actually goes by the name of Andrew Lewis.

But the first clear enunciation of the aphorism that the audience of mass media is the product, not the customer, seems to date back to a 7-minute 1973 movie by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman called "Television Delivers People" (and watchable with the magic of YouTube).  The movie is almost entirely a slow scroll of text, one sentence at a time, with spaces between the sentences (to allow time for your deeper contemplation) and muzak playing in the background. It's the kind of movie you would watch in modern art museum.  The scroll starts like this:
"The product of Television, Commercial Television, is the Audience. 
Television delivers people to an advertiser. 
There is no such thing as mass media in the United States except for television. 
Mass media means that a medium can deliver masses of people. 
Commercial television delivers 20 million people a minute. 
In commercial broadcasting the viewer pays for the privilege of having himself sold. 
It is the consumer who is consumed. 
You are the product of t.v.
You are delivered to the advertiser, who is the customer. 
He consumes you. 
The viewer is not responsible for programming------
You are the end product. 
You are the end product delivered en masse to the advertiser. 
You are the product of t.v."
The text goes on to mention the NEW MEDIA STATE (in capital letters, natch) run by corporations to indoctrinate us all in materialism. Setting aside the giggle-worthy levels of portentiousness and pretentiousness, here are a few thoughts: 

In thinking about the social effects of internet and social media, it's worth remembering that many of the same issues were raised with some force about television. American households have a television turned on about eight hours per day, and time use surveys suggest that Americans spend more than half of their five hours of "leisure time" in a given day watching television. There does seem to be a shift away from watching television screens to watching other screens. But the ability of screens to draw our attention is not new.

In economic terms, the value of broadcast television (and radio) was determined by the revenue collected--which for a long time was mostly advertising revenue. Similarly, when economists today try to put an economic value on the "free" services from Google and others, they use advertising (and other revenues)_to estimate how the attention of the audience is valued in the market.

Analogies between different technologies aren't likely to be perfect, or course, and the analogy between television and the internet is no exception.  Internet screens offer some greater possibilities for audience participation: as game-players, content providers (written, musical, video), commenters, shoppers, and so on.  But they share the characteristic that content comes and goes, but the platform through which the content is provided lives on. And they share the characteristic while much of the attention given to screens is provided in a household context, there is an ongoing social pressure to be part of the in-group that saw the video clip, the picture, the tweet, the Instagram or Facebook update, the article, the game.

In the old-time days of broadcast television this pressure may have been a little less, because if you missed a certain TV show, you wouldn't be able to see it again until summer re-runs. But social media is asychronous, so even if you don't see something when it first appears, you can check it out an hour or a day or a week later. Content on old-time broadcast television was like catching a bus that came by now and then; modern internet media is a treadmill where every time you step off, you can step right back on again.

The most fundamental and unbending of all economic tradeoffs is that none of us gets more than 24 hours in a day. For all of us, it is worth considering which roles we actually play for hours each day--whether looking at screens or otherwise.