People as product

Last week in the thread “Notable Quotes, Excerpts, and Profound Lines” over at Mobileread, I read this quotation:

“The people who use sites like Google and Facebook are not those companies’ customers. They are the products that those companies sell to their customers. In general, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. Sometimes you’re the product even if you are paying for it.”

—Bruce Schneier, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.

It got me thinking about the ways I am product: at Facebook, on Twitter, on Google. The thought that followed on the heels of that one was, “As product goes, I’m not worth much.” Sell my personal information, sure. But use it to sell me something? Not likely. The concept of me-as-dataset is not troubling. Think it is gold? It is not. It is not me either.

A pitch is like an invitation to a dance.  When you are young, you lack experience and find it easy to say yes. By the time you grow up, you are more discriminating.

From the days of people barking their goods on city streets to the present when they bark their goods online, we have not come so very far. We pass by with our own agendas, hopes, worries, dreams, pain, distractions, likes, and dislikes. These characteristics are not stiff and static as they are when extracted as data. Instead they are like leaping all over the place like popcorn in a machine.

People are quirky and unpredictable product. That is because they are alive.

As an actual living person, you look down on ads from a great height. If you stop to pat the ad on the head and say “cute,” you might buy what the cute little thing is selling.  But  a cautionary note: be yourself. You are not your dataset. You never will be.

7 comments on “People as product

  1. sdormadyeise says:

    I definitely don’t feel like a product. It shocks me that anyone would say a person could BE a product. Thanks for your blog. It was thought-provoking, as usual.

  2. Lindsay, I can’t shrink down to that size … I am afterall Italian and we are built for comfort with nice round curves. If I market myself, I’d think of being a giant bowl of pasta … comfort food for the pasta-deprived :)

  3. I think that it is possible to misunderstand what being the product is, and to think too narrowly. Maybe we like to think that we resist advertising / marketing and give it a patronizing pat, but do we ?

    When UK supermarket Tesco (which I call Veran) introduced Clubcard, its loyalty card, it was obvious to me from the start that data about what I buy and when I buy it were being collected from me in return for the points, one per pound sterling spent (and also per bag of one’s own recycled to carry shopping, the so-called Green points), and built up a profile for me, as well as forming part of the overall picture. Others seemed to have realized this rather more slowly, and maybe needed the newspapers to tell them, so I wonder how ‘smart’ are we really in general ?

    Then, with advertising, the first part is to create a need – not a really need, but just for you to feel inadequate or afraid without x, whatever x is. A typical example : What would happen to your family if you died ? Fear, panic, in a few, they hope, and they don’t care about everyone else who says It’s just me anyway or I’ve got life insurance – everyone gets the message, for the sake of the few who are the potential purchasers of the fear-driven message.

    Except that, of course, everything from e-mail sign-on pages to Google carries adverts – and how do you know that what you see is what everyone else, signing in or searching at the same time sees ? It’s not, because Google knows all that you’ve ever searched for before, and your list of hits will be influenced by those data, and your IP address identifies you.

    Every competition entered is more data – why would you enter the competition, if you weren’t interested in the prizes (unlike people who enter all the competitions, and just rely on winning something so often on average) ? And you gave your postcode, or something that indicates who you are likely to be from where you are.

    All of this, compared with going into a shop and buying a packet of mints with coins, gives immeasurable amounts of information to be used to design products, campaigns, posters, names of products – even the image on this page of a couch can give information. Why do we buy this pasta rather than that pasta, if we do not have a pasta that we always buy – and, if we do, how was that loyalty gained, and what could be done to the product to make it capable of being produced more cheaply without losing it ?

    Easy. We take our product, Paradise Pasta, we change the formulation, and we put that different Paradise Pasta into monitored outlets, where we know who normally buys it, and we see whether they buy it as often or stop buying it. Maybe we get away with it, because sales are unchanged, it’s costing us less to make, and no one much has spotted any difference, so we can use the saving to promote the product, say by a price-reduction that attracts the people who are guided by a product at a lower price, as long as it looks and is packaged OK – maybe they won’t stay, when the price goes back to normal, but we’ll still have sold more product…

    All of this is guided by what we, as people, are likely to want to buy – what are our tastes, what words do we use, what job do we do… The Devil’s job is to have you believe that what you are buying now – or next – isn’t potentially influenced by your dataset.

    • Nobody always resists it, which is probably impossible. But you can play the game while knowing it is a game. You can have fun with it, too. But people can never be reduced to product,people are alive and therefore dynamic, and product is not.


      • The initial quotation stretched things by calling us ‘the product’ : what I want to argue is that the by-product of our Tweeting or other activities such as using a loyalty card is not, actually, as this describes it :

        The concept of me-as-dataset is not troubling. Think it is gold? It is not. It is not me either.

        These people know that it is not You, The Real You. They know, and they don’t care about that. What they care about is what the data that you give them show, which are worth – for the reasons that I have set out – far more than the trivial cost of providing us with Twitter to express ourselves, because they shape our world without our knowing (or knowing the mechanism).

        If we are the sun, they are like heliotropic plants, growing to face us (which they would not do otherwise) : they feed off us from the sunlight, and we mistake, if we think that they do it because they like us per se, or that they care what we really are, apart from the source of life.

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