If it’s free, you’re the product – again

As the twenty-first century approaches its third decade I am deeply worried about the nature of how social media is served to us. It didn’t really exist twenty years ago when everybody was worried about the ‘millennium bug’ destroying everything.

Today it’s engaged by a really significant chunk of every human alive on the planet, but the services are dominated by faceless monoliths that don’t engage with their customers (yes, I’m talking about YOU, Facebook, and is your name really the oxymoron it appears to be?).

That’s the thing. Social media is a great way to connect with people globally, but the service frameworks around which it’s offered are those of amoral corporates who have monetised the system to their own benefit. And that is quite without considering the way that their ‘algorithms’ work – mathematical tools designed to take the place of human judgement. These don’t just create ‘validation bubbles’. They also arbitrarily do things such as throttle viewers, for no known or obvious reason; or block links – again, without it being obvious why. Nor is there a human at the other end, with certain social media services (yes, I am talking about YOU, Facebook), who can undo obvious mistakes made by the bots.

I also worry about the fate of the data most social media and search engine services scrape from users. Aside from the risk of misuse by the collectors, what happens when it’s passed on? Who gets it, and what will they do with it? I won’t go down the track of that old aphorism ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ in terms of loss of privacy. It’s a false-premise assumption because it presupposes that those who object to their life details and activities being publicised must be trying to hide wrong-doing. Actually, privacy is a right. Some people simply don’t want others to know every detail of their lawful and honest lives and activities, and rightly so.

What worries me is where those who run and administer the social media services will go next. It is too easy to ‘predict’ the future by amplifying some current or recent trend and taking it to an extreme. I suspect that the next directions won’t be obvious, other than chasing the dollar while paying apparent lip-service to social trend and political criticism. And maybe – just maybe – the era of giant corporates dominating this side of our lives will be short-lived, historically speaking, and pass in a generation or so. After all, social media is only part of an information-age revolution. It’s something as large for humanity, in terms of implied change of everything considered ‘normal’ a generation or so ago, as the Industrial Revolution was in the late eighteenth century – and that took generations to settle down. If it ever did.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

6 thoughts on “If it’s free, you’re the product – again

  1. This is a tough discussion but an important one considering where we have come basically without that discussion. I agree fully that privacy should be a right and it has been usurped in most cases without our knowledge. I think the default should be a paid for web service without any advertising.

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    1. Yes, it’s one of those issues that hasn’t been fully discussed by society. I think the terms of discussion, even, haven’t been fully identified. I would like to think that a paid service would not be subject to these issues. However, the problem of data commoditisation by large corporates is ubiquitous these days – as I mentioned to Audrey in another comment on this thread, several times lately I’ve bought something and had to leave my email address as a device for validating the warranty. Next thing – I’m deluged with marketing spam from the company. Here in New Zealand, certainly, they run to the edge of the law by so doing – their spam is ‘opt out’, not ‘opt in’, which is dodgy in terms of NZ’s Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007. Still, what that presents is an issue where even a paid service probably would still end up with data commoditisation by the corporate offering it. Unfortunately. I think a change of mind-set is needed in which customer rights are genuine, and not merely presented ‘for form’.


    1. I am sure things would shift to some extent – especially if people voted with their feet and showed that they were prepared to pay for a service unencumbered by advertising etc. I fear the culture of ‘data commoditisation by big corporates’ has, however, extended even to paid services. Several times lately I’ve bought things from reputable stores, been asked for my email address as a way of validating the warranty – and then found myself deluged with marketing spam from them. And I am the paying customer.

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  2. You are quite right, Matthew. There’s a lot of settling down to be done. As well as the privacy issues you refer to, these corporations are actually undermining our whole way of life by replacing functions that are taxed locally with online equivalents that are hardly taxed at all. Public services and governments suffer.

    The big corporations seem to have a stranglehold on preventing any sensible regulation, but this will surely change at some point, but only when there are scandals too big to be smoothed over. Sadly, the same is true of climate change.

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