We Are Facebook’s Product, Not Its Customers

Valeria Maltoni asked a thought-provoking question on Twitter about Facebook’s recent privacy policy changes and our response (or lack thereof) as users:

In the ReTweets and conversation that ensued, Chris Rinaldi asked: “If we’re not paying for Facebook, can’t they do whatever they want?”

Well, yes. But that would be true if we were paying members, too. There’s language in the terms of service that explicitly says Facebooks TOS and privacy policy can change at anytime.

My friend Lisa Hoffmann had this to say:

I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve realized we’re not Facebook’s customers: We’re its product.

Even if we took to the streets with pitchforks and torches, Facebook has no obligation to us. We’re not the customers; the advertisers are. We are the product the advertisers buy.

Our eyeballs. Our interactions. Our attention. Our data. That’s what Facebook is selling.

And we agreed to it.

If Facebook’s policy changes cause a walkout (they won’t), it doesn’t mean Facebook has lost customers. It means the product has changed. The user population may grow or shrink, the demographics may shift this way or that, and the behavioral patterns may evolve. And Facebook knows this. In fact, they’re counting on it. Every change the company makes is a calculated maneuver to create a product that’s more palatable (and pliable) to advertisers.

We are a dynamic product. Unlike a sprocket or a widget, our shape is amorphous. We can complain all we want, but unless we fundamentally and dramatically change our shape — to the dissatisfaction of Facebook’s TRUE customer — Facebook will continue to re-write the rules of playing its game.

And I’m just not convinced we’re angry enough to make that dramatic change.

  • Irant

    I think you are absolutely correct – we are Facebook's product. What they do will be in their own commercial interest, and you can't really fault them for that.

    I think the difficulty with this product, however, is that because the value of Facebook is in the value of the network of people that use it (Reed's Law, Beckstrom's Law), we are not parts in a bin to be ignored; as consumers of its service we are constituents that cannot be ignored.

    There is nothing that immunizes Facebook from a MySpace-like flame-out, in theory. That decision is in the communal hands of the network, fragmented though that power may be. I know I use Facebook much less frequently now because of all of these functional and policy changes, and I suspect others feel the same way.

    And because the power of Facebook has nothing to do with the platform, but the people that use it, it also behooves those that recommend social strategy to ensure that they recognize a Facebook backlash is a risk factor and therefore their recommendations are diverse enough to immunize their clients from this risk.

    Nice post.

  • Irant

    I think you are absolutely correct – we are Facebook's product. What they do will be in their own commercial interest, and you can't really fault them for that.

    I think the difficulty with this product, however, is that because the value of Facebook is in the value of the network of people that use it (Reed's Law, Beckstrom's Law), we are not parts in a bin to be ignored; as consumers of its service we are constituents that cannot be ignored.

    There is nothing that immunizes Facebook from a MySpace-like flame-out, in theory. That decision is in the communal hands of the network, fragmented though that power may be. I know I use Facebook much less frequently now because of all of these functional and policy changes, and I suspect others feel the same way.

    And because the power of Facebook has nothing to do with the platform, but the people that use it, it also behooves those that recommend social strategy to ensure that they recognize a Facebook backlash is a risk factor and therefore their recommendations are diverse enough to immunize their clients from this risk.

    Nice post.

  • http://twitter.com/emerigent/lists/memberships Emeri Gent [Em]

    The way I now look at it, Facebook is doing something right – otherwise it would not even be half the phenomena it has grown into being. We are a lot of things if we dwelled on what we could be called. Are social labels really helpful in a world full of labels or is our ability to learn to reframe our own life experience what matters?

    I went past my local library and a great big sign was hanging down which said “we are on facebook” and the floor had signage that resembled Facebook – and I have not even turned on or was anywhere near a computer. I must say, this tells me that Facebook is now becoming a daily fabric part of our public life. So is IBM, so is Nike, so is Wal-mart and so is any logo that we can recognize. So is a public library if we use it.

    I may enjoy the term that is labelled “refusnik”, but my anger will only arise if my web experience is commandeered into becoming a defacto Facebook linkage. I don't presently see life as a dictatorship. I have traveled abroad and seen that what I have taken for granted is something that a lot of the world has not yet attained. Sure we can raise the bar on democracy and personal intelligence, I should count my blessings.

    I think it might just be a good sign that people are not being worked up about Facebook because that might just mean that instead of the old fashioned response of anger, there might be a new response of thoughtfulness in motion. After all advertising was here way long before Facebook ever was, so what is the difference if Facebook has become the 800lb gorilla rather than the old media company that required advertising to keep the economics rolling. I say good for them and that I don't even use their service, it is grossly unfair for me to even judge what it is they do, or for that matter the freedom of choice of those who choose to use their service.

    The existence of Facebook does not deter me from roving the web and finding niche spots of intelligent life. I don't think those niches of online intelligence are going to be harder to find just because Facebook is growing from strength to strength. That I am actually talking about Facebook here represents a major change in my own thinking. It means that I am OK with it now, and that happens IMHO to be personally a good thing.

    There are greater problems in the world than the power and reach of online entities, but because there is an online connection, it does make it easier to organize our own information. That Facebook organizes information or web experience is because there is a huge market that serves that said purpose. That I am a minority who want to do my own thing is my own individual choice.

    I am seeing fantastic stuff that is happening that has or is capable of changing my own perspectives. I want to organize that for myself and there are plenty of choices for me to engage that particular way that do not involve Facebook.

    I am not being the product of Facebook as I type out these thoughts, but merely its billboard. Of course I have at the end of the day whose billboard I become, but for today at least, it feels very strange and unusual to be talking about an entity that I have chosen mostly to ignore. I am talking about it not because it exists but the word “anger” was used.

    The more I think about the usefulness of anger the less I realize it as useful emotion, perhaps it has resonance as an emotion of last resort but surely, learning to be more thoughtful will do more to raise the bar on collective wisdom than just more anger?

    Just thinking out aloud for my own cognitive reflection (as per usual) so please take my pondering I have mulled here with a pinch of salt and no more.

    [Em]

  • http://twitter.com/emerigent/lists/memberships Emeri Gent [Em]

    The way I now look at it, Facebook is doing something right – otherwise it would not even be half the phenomena it has grown into being. We are a lot of things if we dwelled on what we could be called. Are social labels really helpful in a world full of labels or is our ability to learn to reframe our own life experience what matters?

    I went past my local library and a great big sign was hanging down which said “we are on facebook” and the floor had signage that resembled Facebook – and I have not even turned on or was anywhere near a computer. I must say, this tells me that Facebook is now becoming a daily fabric part of our public life. So is IBM, so is Nike, so is Wal-mart and so is any logo that we can recognize. So is a public library if we use it.

    I may enjoy the term that is labelled “refusnik”, but my anger will only arise if my web experience is commandeered into becoming a defacto Facebook linkage. I don't presently see life as a dictatorship. I have traveled abroad and seen that what I have taken for granted is something that a lot of the world has not yet attained. Sure we can raise the bar on democracy and personal intelligence, I should count my blessings.

    I think it might just be a good sign that people are not being worked up about Facebook because that might just mean that instead of the old fashioned response of anger, there might be a new response of thoughtfulness in motion. After all advertising was here way long before Facebook ever was, so what is the difference if Facebook has become the 800lb gorilla rather than the old media company that required advertising to keep the economics rolling. I say good for them and that I don't even use their service, it is grossly unfair for me to even judge what it is they do, or for that matter the freedom of choice of those who choose to use their service.

    The existence of Facebook does not deter me from roving the web and finding niche spots of intelligent life. I don't think those niches of online intelligence are going to be harder to find just because Facebook is growing from strength to strength. That I am actually talking about Facebook here represents a major change in my own thinking. It means that I am OK with it now, and that happens IMHO to be personally a good thing.

    There are greater problems in the world than the power and reach of online entities, but because there is an online connection, it does make it easier to organize our own information. That Facebook organizes information or web experience is because there is a huge market that serves that said purpose. That I am a minority who want to do my own thing is my own individual choice.

    I am seeing fantastic stuff that is happening that has or is capable of changing my own perspectives. I want to organize that for myself and there are plenty of choices for me to engage that particular way that do not involve Facebook.

    I am not being the product of Facebook as I type out these thoughts, but merely its billboard. Of course I have at the end of the day whose billboard I become, but for today at least, it feels very strange and unusual to be talking about an entity that I have chosen mostly to ignore. I am talking about it not because it exists but the word “anger” was used.

    The more I think about the usefulness of anger the less I realize it as useful emotion, perhaps it has resonance as an emotion of last resort but surely, learning to be more thoughtful will do more to raise the bar on collective wisdom than just more anger?

    Just thinking out aloud for my own cognitive reflection (as per usual) so please take my pondering I have mulled here with a pinch of salt and no more.

    [Em]

  • http://www.acceleratedbr.com Laura Mattis

    Very interesting read, never thought of FB users as products vs. customers. I agree, we're not upset enough about it for there to be a change. Maybe when we are ready to cause enough stir for change, we'll then be considered customer. Also, not really another competitor that has the mass appeal of Facebook (that I'm aware of)… once something substantial comes along, then that too might give users leverage as a customer vs. a product being held at FB's whim.

  • http://www.acceleratedbr.com Laura Mattis

    Very interesting read, never thought of FB users as products vs. customers. I agree, we're not upset enough about it for there to be a change. Maybe when we are ready to cause enough stir for change, we'll then be considered customer. Also, not really another competitor that has the mass appeal of Facebook (that I'm aware of)… once something substantial comes along, then that too might give users leverage as a customer vs. a product being held at FB's whim.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    As much as I want to agree with your argument that we're constituents who can't be ignored, I fear that we're too complacent, disorganized or dispassionate to do anything.

    The screengrab I included at the end summarizes the problem, in my view: Facebook rolls out a series of changes, we all wail and moan, then go right back to using Facebook.

    Even the outrage over Twitter's change last year (only see @replies of your friends if you're also following the recipient) didn't lead to a Twitter exodus. We stayed, Twitter grew.

    We'll stay, Facebook'll grow.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    As much as I want to agree with your argument that we're constituents who can't be ignored, I fear that we're too complacent, disorganized or dispassionate to do anything.

    The screengrab I included at the end summarizes the problem, in my view: Facebook rolls out a series of changes, we all wail and moan, then go right back to using Facebook.

    Even the outrage over Twitter's change last year (only see @replies of your friends if you're also following the recipient) didn't lead to a Twitter exodus. We stayed, Twitter grew.

    We'll stay, Facebook'll grow.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    The absence of a viable alternative is an important point, Laura…thanks for raising it. Twitter's user base is a drop in the bucket compared to Facebook's, and Facebook has FAR more features, so Twitter's hardly an alternative. No other network has the reach, functionality, advertiser base, or integration with content providers that Facebook has.

    There will come a time when Congress holds hearings to determine if Facebook needs to be broken up, just like Ma Bell.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    The absence of a viable alternative is an important point, Laura…thanks for raising it. Twitter's user base is a drop in the bucket compared to Facebook's, and Facebook has FAR more features, so Twitter's hardly an alternative. No other network has the reach, functionality, advertiser base, or integration with content providers that Facebook has.

    There will come a time when Congress holds hearings to determine if Facebook needs to be broken up, just like Ma Bell.