To pay or not to pay for Facebook

Would you rather pay Facebook with money or data?

Not long ago, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who studies social media, wrote that she wanted to pay for Facebook. More precisely, she wants the company to offer a cash option (about twenty cents a month, she calculates) for people who value their privacy, but also want a rough idea of what their friends’ children look like. In return for Facebook agreeing not to record what she does—and to not show her targeted ads—she would give them roughly the amount of money that they make selling the ads that she sees right now. Not surprisingly, her request seems to have been ignored. But the question remains: just why doesn’t Facebook want Tufekci’s money? One reason, I think, is that it would expose the arbitrage scheme at the core of Facebook’s business model and the ridiculous degree to which people undervalue their personal data…

The trick is that most people think they are getting a good deal out of Facebook; we think of Facebook to be “free,” and, as marketing professors explain, “consumers overreact to free.” Most people don’t feel like they are actually paying when the payment is personal data and when there is no specific sensation of having handed anything over. If you give each of your friends a hundred dollars, you might be out of money and will have a harder time buying dinner. But you can hand over your personal details or photos to one hundred merchants without feeling any poorer.

So what does it really mean, then, to pay with data? Something subtler is going on than with the more traditional means of payment. Jaron Lanier, the author of “Who Owns the Future,” sees our personal data not unlike labor—you don’t lose by giving it away, but if you don’t get anything back you’re not receiving what you deserve. Information, he points out, is inherently valuable. When billions of people hand data over to just a few companies, the effect is a giant wealth transfer from the many to the few…

Ultimately, Tufekci wants us to think harder about what it means when we pay with data or attention instead of money, which is what makes her proposition so interesting. While every business has slightly mixed motives, those companies that we pay live and die by how they serve the customer. In contrast, the businesses we are paying with attention or data are conflicted. We are their customers, but we are also their products, ultimately resold to others. We are unlikely to stop loving free stuff. But we always pay in the end—and it is worth asking how.

Perhaps we are headed toward a world where companies like Facebook would have to show customers (1) how much data they actually have about the person and (2) what that data is worth. But, I imagine the corporations would like to avoid this because it is better if the user is unaware and shares all sorts of things. And what would it take for customers to demand such transparency or do we simply like the allure of Facebook and credit cards and others products too much to pull back the curtain?

Is it going too far to suggest that personal data is the most important asset individuals will have in the future?

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