The People Who Pay For Your Free Apps

Nothing in this world is free. So who pays for free apps?

Free software is popular these days. Most of the software most of us use is free: Basically any email provider, Google Drive, any major GPS provider, all of our social media, basic-to-medium math, science, and creativity software, and a majority of all the apps on our app stores, for starters.

This is a digital Wal-mart where more than half of everything on sale is free. Has no one bothered to notice how weird that is?

We’ve all started taking this free software for granted. Hell, I’ve watched people get indignant that an app maker would even dare ask a user to pay money. After all, all the other apps are free.

Except that they’re not. The programmers who made that software need to eat. Presumably, they eat, which means someone’s paying them. If it’s not you, then who?

If you aren’t paying to use the software you use, that means someone else is paying for you.

Almost always, it’s advertisers. They are paying for you to use the software because when you use it, your eyeballs see their ads. You’re basically saying “Yes, I will sit through an intermittent brainwashing campaign designed to get me to buy your product in exchange for the use of this software.”

Another popular one is data collection. Large corporations want your personal data, and the data of millions of others, so they can analyze it in bulk and draw conclusions about people. Often, this works in tandem with advertisement — Google and Facebook, for instance, collect your data and use that data to sell personalized ad slots to third parties. That’s why Facebook ads always seem to know what you’ve been thinking about buying. Sometimes, though, the data is used for other things, such as how Cambridge Analytica used personal data in the most recent presidential election. At the end of the day, though, you can rest assured that the data collection somehow serves someone who is trying to get money from you.

Occasionally, universities will commission the creation of free software because it is part of a study. MIT is notable for doing this — they created the Moral Machine software which asks you moral questions about automated cars. This data is then used as part of a study about what kind of decisions people think automated cars should make.

But generally, if it’s not MIT, it’s advertisers.


It sounds bad, but it doesn’t stop there. These third parties only make money when you use their software, so they want you to use it as much as possible. For them, addicted to your phone is the way they want it.

This inspired a spate of psychological research into how addiction works — not so that they could break it, but so that they could create it for their apps. This field of research, called behaviourism, existed since 1930 when a scientist named Skinner found that rats can be conditioned to pull a lever to get food. Back then, it was only understood as a function of clinical psychology and fell out of favor as research looked to other types of therapy. When companies needed to know how to get people addicted to their products, behaviourism came roaring back as behavior design, the study of how humans behave with respect to screens.

Here are some of the characteristics behavior designers use to make you addicted:

  • Variable-Ratio Schedule Rewards. In plain English, this means that people get addicted to things when they provide a reward at unpredictable intervals. This is the primary characteristic that makes people addicted to gambling. In social media, the reward is seeing a post that you like, getting your post liked, etc. with iPhone games, the reward is often something like surprise coins or gems.
  • Loss Aversion. We get more addicted to apps that make us feel like we will lose something if we don’t use them. In FarmVille, crops could only be harvested in a certain window of time. Miss that window, your crops die. We don’t like the feeling of loss, even if it’s over digital crops that are completely worthless, so we open the app to harvest them. We might as well plant more crops while we’re there, and so the cycle continues.
  • Vitamins vs. Painkillers. Vitamins may or may not solve pains that may or may not exist in the future. Painkillers fix pain now. Apps that are addictive fix pain now, as opposed to relying on the nebulous promises of the future. FarmVille fixes boredom now, Snapchat fixes loneliness now, so on and so forth.
  • Perceived Scarcity. We instinctively think that which is more scarce is more valuable. Apps take advantage of this by creating the perception of scarcity of things inside the app, like gems or coins or XP points.
  • Investment. We value more highly that which we did ourselves, even when the competing option is clearly higher quality and a better value. Apps take advantage of this by getting you to ‘invest’ in the app early, either by making a post, playing a tutorial game, or something else of the sort.

I could go on and on, but I’ll close with this quote which effectively summarizes the ‘ideal’ state of phone addiction companies want:

An app succeeds… when it meets the user’s most basic emotional needs even before she has become consciously aware of them. “When you’re feeling uncertain, before you ask why you’re uncertain, you Google. When you’re lonely, before you’re even conscious of feeling it, you go to Facebook. Before you know you’re bored, you’re on YouTube. Nothing tells you to do these things. The users trigger themselves.”
The Economist, 1843 Magazine, The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive

This all reminds me of a System of a Down song called Chic N’ Stu.

For those of us who don’t understand screamo, here are the lyrics:

What a splendid pie,
Pizza-pizza pie,
Every minute, every second,
Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy!

(…..)

Well advertising’s got you on the run,
Need therapy, therapy advertising causes,
Well advertising’s got you on the run,

The man in the song is feverishly buying, listening to the ads, and driving himself to therapy in the process. The frantic repetitiveness of the lyrics and the high-energy anxiety the musical style causes emphasize this emotional state in the listener. He’s trapped in the system.

System of a Down did not make this song on a whim; they were trying to make a point. For a song that sounds like a bunch of clanging pots and pans to most people, it’s a surprisingly nuanced one.


Behavioural design is not inherently evil. Educational app Duolingo uses these principles to keep coming back to their app, an app that teaches you languages in bite-sized chunks. This is clearly a good use — thanks to Duolingo, I’m staying motivated and continue to use their app to teach myself Spanish. But the fact is, for every Duolingo, there are 25 (or more) apps that use these behavioral programming to get you to do something bad for you.

A lot of people try to fight this head-on. They delete all their apps, turn the color down on their phones, even buy tiny dumbphones that are the size of a credit card.

In any case, the only people that can keep this from happening to us is ourselves. We can pass regulations and make laws and force corporations to do what we want, but they will always be trying to slide past that to get what they want. Ultimately, we as a people need to decide that we want more for ourselves. And like Ghandi said, change starts with the self.

I’m just one person. Why does it matter that I break the cycle? That won’t change the world.

On a societal scale, it matters because Facebook and Google only do this because that’s where the money is. If no one would hand over their data, and no one wanted to see ads, they wouldn’t waste time trying to make software that works that way. They are banking on your apathy to take advantage of you.

On a personal scale, it matters because these things rule your mind more than you think. I have suggested this to people who have gotten offended (“You think a phone can control my behavior? I’m the one in control,” one might say, while simultaneously scrolling through Instagram for the fifth time that day), but it’s true nonetheless. Fish don’t know they are in water until they are taken out, and you do not know the ways behavioral design has affected your mind until you start to get rid of it.


I’ve spent the last several months working myself out of this dangerous cycle. I’m not done, but I’ve written articles about the things I tried. As I write more, I’ll add them here.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +393,714 people.

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