What does big tech (Facebook / Google / Twitter ) offer? If I had to pay for these services, how would I justify this expense?
If you had to pay for social media, how would you justify the expense?
Because of the free nature of these platforms, I suspect that we rarely ask ourselves this question. They’ve achieved such dominance, they’re so firmly embedded in our habits and routines, the question almost sounds like nonsense.
But as I started to consider the countless hours and days spent scrolling through these platforms, watching, liking, arguing, pontificating, it struck me as odd that I never asked myself, “What am I getting out of this deal”?
What did I get?
It’s abundantly clear what big tech has gained out of the deal: unthinkable money, power, monopolies.
But what did I get?
It’s actually pretty hard to identify: I’ve made very few meaningful relationships. (For all it’s talk about “friendship”, in my experience social media sours more friendships than it nurtures.) I’ve consumed an unthinkable amount of media. I’ve spent hours mildly amused by funny videos, and more hours engaged in vitriolic debates bent on silencing my opposition. I’ve labored to find the most pithy comment that will gain the most likes/retweets. I’ve been able to find current photographs of people that I haven’t physically seen in years.
I’ve been able to wish people I barely know “Happy Birthday”.
What did I lose?
Then I wondered what this investment cost me. What did I lose for my sizable investment into these platforms?
Facebook loves to give those cheerful reminders of how long I’ve been using them. “You’ve been with us for 10 years! Here’s some highlights.”
According to the latest data the average user spends 35–40 minutes on Facebook per day. Add that up over ten years.
What haven’t I done because I chose to invest in social media?
Ten years of that sort of daily effort is enough time to become an accomplished artist, author, musician, entrepreneur, athlete. What haven’t I done because I chose to invest in social media?
How many conversations with my wife passed in silence while I was glued to a feed? What unique moments with my children are lost because Daddy was on the computer? What ideas did I shut myself off to because I only consumed news that confirmed my beliefs and inflamed my prejudices? What books didn’t I read, what pictures didn’t I draw, what music didn’t I play, what silent personal reflection was lost, what prayers unsaid? — those hours instead consumed by my screen.
Why did I do it?
What if someone came up to you and said: “Login to a site for one hour every single day, read and write text, share photos, and click buttons. You have to do it for ten years. You have to do it for free. The only thing you get out of it is that we will make numbers appear next to the things you create. The better you do, the higher the numbers go. We will watch everything you do, steal everything you create, and sell it to make billions of dollars for ourselves. Sound good?”
That offer would cause riots in the streets. But it’s an offer that our society happily accepted for a decade. It’s an offer that I took without a second thought. Why?
Because I wanted to be a celebrity.
Of course the social media platform can’t approach you with a demand for free labor. But there’s this weird thing about modern culture, we all think we should be celebrities — maybe only in our school, our industry, or peer group — but we think it. We know deep down that we are more beautiful, talented, and special than the rest. We deserve more attention than we get. And big tech is here to help.
there’s this weird thing about modern culture, we all think we should be celebrities
Instead of paying us for our time, they hold out the offer of celebrity, of becoming a “social media superstar”. The term “superstar” is apropos because all of these platforms essentially put you into a competitive game the second you click “register”.
There are rankings, points, and — a select, golden few — winners. These winners rise above their peers and subject the platform to their own ends. By playing the game better than the rest they are rewarded with their heart’s desire: fame, fortune, notoriety, attention, status.
All of these platforms put you into a competitive game the second you click “register”
This is why I played this game for ten years. If I broke one thousand followers on Twitter, people would suddenly pay attention. If I posted something hot on Facebook, I would get the noisiest thread and the most likes — thus raising my status in the community as a “thinker”, a “commentator”, a “provocateur”, and the most coveted status of all “influencer”. I would be retweeted, friended, followed. I would trend.
I would become something special: a star, an influencer of the masses. All I had to do was play the game: Tweet, like, post, stream. Watch the numbers creep up.
None of this ever actually happened: I never amassed a vast Twitter following. My Facebook antics probably lost me more friends then ever raised my profile. By the time Instagram rolled around, I was too jaded to engage much. Count me as one of the billions of losers.
But here’s the dirty secret, losers are just as valuable to these platforms. As long as I keep playing they keep making money.
They’ve got a million tricks to keep us playing this game, to keep us uploading free photos, videos, comments. They’ve made it a science.
“Don’t walk away! There’s still hope of winning,” they say. “Look at what you’re missing.” Ding! And the notification badge on your phone turns red.
Can we fix it?
The social media companies are in the dog house right now and they know it. They’re promising that they can fix “the problem”. They’re introducing features to limit addiction, deploying artificial intelligence to stop political gamesmanship, vowing not to invade our privacy any more than they have to.
But these are all smokescreens that obscure the core problem: the business model itself.
You’d think we stop to ask, how on earth can companies become so mind-bogglingly valuable while giving everything away for free?
The answer is, of course, they aren’t free.
Facebook’s product actually isn’t facebook.com. Instagram’s business isn’t the app on your phone. Those are the ways that you work for them. Every time you launch an app, you’re punching a time card. They turn around and sell what you give them to the highest bidder. What an amazing business model! No wonder their stock is so valuable! They’ve amassed vast armies of oblivious, addicted, free workers.
Facebook’s product actually isn’t facebook.com. Instagram’s business isn’t the app on your phone. Those are the ways that you work for them.
Social media is big business built on the back of your free time.
That’s not a bug in the system.
That’s the core feature.
Who knew Serfdom would be so much fun?
In medieval times serfs would work the land of their feudal lord. They had no ownership over the land they labored to cultivate. The fruits of their labor belonged to the feudal lord. It’s an amazing system if you happen to be a feudal lord but also somewhat limited by physical realities. No matter how rich you are, there’s a finite amount of land for your serfs to work.
But today, thanks to technology, these overlords can amass an army of free workers to the tune of billions. Facebook’s free workforce is one quarter of Earth’s population. There’s no physical limitations to that number continuing to climb.
And like feudal lords of old, it’s not like they don’t give their workers anything. They give us free entertainment, arguments, pictures, videos, memes, likes, friends, followers and for those most talented, loyal serfs: influence, stardom. All we need to do is keep working.
What can we do?
First, we need to recognize this model for what it is: a form of exploitation. It’s sincerely, sincerely bad. As entrepreneurs we need to reject it. We need to seek and discover business models that actually serve our customers. Profit is not a bad thing. Trickery is. Theft is.
We need to recognize this model for what it is: a form of exploitation.
Second, walk away. Think about your investment into these platforms, what they’ve taken from you, what you’ve lost by feeding their empires. Stop playing their game. Accept that you aren’t going to be a celebrity. Go outside. Read a book. Sit in silence. Spend actual time with someone you love. Go have a private adventure instead of a public performance. Be yourself.
Don’t give away your life for free.
Instead be free.