It is often said, “If the product/website/app/etc. you’re using is free, you are the product.” That sounds terrifyingly dehumanizing, doesn’t it? But it is not true.
The reality is worse than that.
We are not even the product. Big social internet companies do not care about us. It is our data they want. Our data is the product. How do they get our data, then? By harvesting our attention using complicated mathematical equations to decide what kind of content will get us to stop, watch, click, or comment.
The collective attention of all of us, the users of the social internet, is driving the trillion-dollar attention economy of the most lucrative companies in the world. When the attention economy first started, the goal was to learn as much about user behavior as possible so that advertisements could be placed in front of the most interested eyes. Today, the goal of the attention economy is not just to learn about human behavior, but to influence or, often more maliciously, to manipulate human behavior.
Every major social internet platform you and I use daily is available to us free of charge. We don’t have to pay per Google search. Facebook and Instagram don’t charge a monthly fee. What we don’t realize is that we are paying for these services, just not with money. We’re paying with our data. We’re paying with our privacy. None of us read the “Terms and Conditions” or “Terms of Service” on the websites or apps we use, so we don’t know what we’re giving up by using them. Social media may be free of charge, but it still comes at a great cost.
Why Should I Care About My Data and Privacy?
Before we continue, I want to address a question you’re likely asking, “Why should I care about my data and privacy?” One of my good friends, Jonathan, often says to me, “They,” (whoever “they” are, I’m not sure), “have everything already. It doesn’t matter if I give them access to my data.” This is the most common view of people I talk with about our data and privacy being thrown into jeopardy by the social internet and the attention economy in general.
Another common sentiment is, “Why do I care about privacy? I have nothing to hide.” I totally understand the sentiment, but I don’t think it’s true. Your family knows what you do when you go into the bathroom, but you still shut the door. You aren’t trying to hide anything there either!
Secrecy and privacy aren’t the same. We ought to care about what happens to our data. We ought to want to protect our privacy, however impossible it may seem to do at times, because without privacy we have no shield against malicious people who may want to use our data against us. And, often, those malicious people aren’t shadowy foreign governments, but rather, the social internet companies themselves or other people who use them.
My friend gave birth to twin boys a few years ago. The boys were born prematurely, and she chronicled their journey through the NICU on her Instagram so that friends and family could keep up with their progress and pray for them. Eventually, my friend was alerted to a woman who set up an Instagram using the pictures of her children to claim they were her own and she needed money to pay hospital bills and such, as a scam. My friend didn’t do anything wrong. She simply used social media the way it’s meant to be used. She didn’t have anything to hide. She just wanted to share about her boys’ growth and health. But neither you nor I would want what happened to my friend to happen to us.
Privacy matters. We willingly give up some sense of privacy when we post to social media. We express ourselves or post pictures of our lives to social media with the understanding that friends and family will be able to keep up with us and stay in touch.
What we often don’t think about is the hidden costs of such expression. We don’t think about a real person using our content to impersonate us or blackmail us. We don’t think about the possibility that a social media platform is selling our data to other companies so that they can manipulate us to buy their stuff or vote in a certain way.
Is self-expression worth the cost of our privacy? You may think it is, and that’s OK. But I want to make sure you are aware of the price you’re paying when you click the check box on the Terms of Service. We are all paying the price, even if it isn’t hitting our bank accounts.
What Do We Do?
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes about Lewis Mumford, a 20th century American writer and thinker:
Lewis Mumford…has been one of our great noticers. He is not the sort of a man who looks at a clock merely to see what time it is. Not that he lacks interest in the content of clocks, which is of concern to everyone from moment to moment, but he is far more interested in how a clock creates the idea of “moment to moment.”
Let’s be great noticers like Lewis Mumford. It’s easy to become so enamored with the content that litters our social media feeds—funny cat videos, pictures of family members, controversial political opinions—that we never look beyond the content and ask, “What does social media cost me, and should I change my relationship with it?”