For Social Media Companies, You Are the Product. You Deserve Better.

If you use Facebook or Twitter, you might think you’re their customer. You’d be wrong. But you deserve better treatment by their real customers: advertisers.

Advertisers pay for it. And they’re getting you in return.

In 1973, Richard Serra — a sculptor and visual artist — created a video art piece that challenged a commonly held perception that television viewers were “consumers” of the medium.

Over a bed of lightly dancing flutes and strings, the stark yellow-on-blue scroll of text of “Television Delivers People” tells the viewers: you are not the consumer. You are, in fact, the product — delivered to and consumed by the advertiser en masse.

Serra says that television (in 1973) is the only form of mass media, meaning, “that a medium can deliver masses of people.” This is not what we normally think, of course. When we think of “mass media”, we imagine a form of media that reaches millions of people. One that delivers information or entertainment to those millions. But that’s naive, according to Serra.


Fast-forward 44 years, and “mass media” has expanded well beyond the glowing phosphors of a console television in the living room. Television is still a form of mass media, of course. But now, a new form of mass media is rapidly eclipsing television’s ability to deliver viewers to hungry advertisers. One that, 40 years ago, advertisers couldn’t even have imagined.

What Serra said of television in 1973 is easily — almost prophetically — applied to social media. While Serra’s treatise on television-as-mass-media reflects a time when consumers paid for their mass media with real dollars, you pay for social media with your content. Your status updates. Your pithy 140 character replies — 280 if you’re lucky — to a posting from another user who also created their content for free.

No, you are not the customer. You are the product. The social media sites you use have packaged you and delivered you to advertisers.

But those big bills still need to get paid, which begs the question: Who’s paying for all this stuff? For all those employees? And what are they getting for their money?

Advertisers pay for it. And they’re getting you in return.

While browsing your news feeds and timelines, you come across an advertisement for, say, a new mattress. Or a television show. Or a political candidate. You were delivered to the advertiser.

Today, advertisers can target you for those ads. They choose from a menu provided by the social media company, including items like: location, political interests, relationships, socioeconomic status, purchase history gleaned from credit card statements, data from store loyalty cards, views of other online ads, bill payments, banking data, and public records.

If an advertiser wanted to market to politically motivated conservatives, living with a veteran in a rented home, in a predominately white neighborhood that has a higher-than-average density of payday loan providers, they just check a few boxes.

Those users will see that ad — sometimes disguised as a normal “status update” (these are sometimes called “dark posts”) — and not know what magic sauce was used to target them. At least with television, you can reasonably assume an advertisement was directed at everyone watching that same show at the same time on the same network. Online advertising, however, is a black box.

We deserve better.

No, we’re not paying for social media, but we are generating its value. We, as the “social” part of this new form of mass media, deserve to know why we’re seeing an advertisement. Currently, social media companies tell you, “based on your location and browsing history,” or some similarly vague description.

We deserve to know what the advertisers know. We deserve to know, precisely, which “menu selections” were used by an advertiser when they targeted us for an ad.

If we see an ad for the NRA, we deserve to know why. If we see a “sponsored” news story about a muslim who allegedly committed a crime against his neighbors, we deserve to know why. If a PAC shows up in our Twitter feeds with an advertisement supporting the border wall, we deserve to know every metric and datapoint the advertiser chose to reach us.

Yes, we are the product being sold. But we’re also part of the work force. Without our content, social media withers and dies. We deserve to know how we’re being marketed to advertisers.

Hey, if they won’t get rid of all the “bots” and “fake news”, it’s the least they can do to engender a little trust from their users, right?