Member of The Internet Defense League
Donald L. Merand

Free is Not Free

Let’s talk about your information. I mean your basic details: name, email address, gender, address, phone number. This is the kind of information that most people will freely give out. You make an acquaintance, you give them your phone number. You sell something on Craigslist, you might give your address so that the purchaser can come and pick it up. For most people, not a week goes by that you don’t hand away some way to communicate with you or identify you.

Since you freely give this information out, you might assume that there’s nothing inherently valuable in it. It’s not as though your friends or coworkers are going to make money from having your phone number or knowing where you live. How are people going to know whether they should friend you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter if they don’t know all about your obsession with Metroid cosplay? But this information is valuable. In most places on the internet it’s the only currency you’ve got.

Big sites (Google, Facebook, um.. basically everything that you use but don’t “pay” for) tend to serve the same function that magazines serve: to deliver customers to advertisers. Don’t be silly and think that the purpose of Vogue is to tell you about fashion. It’s to tell fashion companies about you, or at least to get their wares in front of your face. In the same way, Google isn’t about getting you accurate search results. It’s about allowing advertisers to show you targeted advertisements based on those search results.

Facebook is the largest marketing database on the planet. You just gave them all the information they need to be valued at 2 zillion dollars. All for the convenience of not having to put people’s birthdays in your own calendar or call them to invite them to a party. Or, you know, to let potentially good-looking strangers know how deeply you love Bon Iver.

If you have any doubt about the point of Google, Facebook, Vogue, whatever, take a look at the latest Advertising Age. It’s best to get a print copy, because then you can see the ads. Yes, there are advertisements in a magazine about advertisements. Who’s doing the advertising? Mostly magazines. Condé Nast, for example. And they say things like “You want to market to Northeastern males between 24 and 35? We’ll give ‘em to you on a platter”.

Let it sink in for a moment:

You're not a customer, you're a product.

Which gets me back to my original point: why are you just giving your information away? You should guard it ferociously. You’re not getting something for free, you’re making an exchange.

“Okay”, you might be saying, “but what if I don’t care about advertisements? I’m really good at ignoring them.” Great. Good for you. But let me pose one other question: is your time worth nothing? Because the time you spend recycling junk mail, calling to be taken off of mailing lists, filtering spam emails, fielding telemarketing calls, that’s time you could be spending doing something that you love, or at least making money. That time adds up. Think long-term: it’s what advertisers do, and you’re playing their game whether you like it or not.

So if you leave with one notion you didn’t come with, let it be this: your basic information is currency, and it’s just as valuable as dollars and cents.

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