It's Not For Free, You Are The Product

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Online Services
Whilst you are busy twiddling your thumbs over your mobile phone or typing away at your keyboard, you are likely using one or other “free” online service. But have you ever stopped to consider how or why the service is free?

All “free” services, and yes that includes services from Google and social media as well as mail services, are designed to get your personal data and then sell it to third parties for profit.

The data is stored in massive data warehouses and used to build your user profile in order to match you with the needs of advertisers. I discussed some of the techniques used in advertising and re-targeting in the blog post titled, How Websites Are Tracking You Online.

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Come to think of it, why would major businesses like Google or Facebook offer a service for free? It simply does not make sense unless there was something in it for them. Indeed, as the saying goes, there ain't nothing as a free lunch.

For these companies to offer their services to you for free, there must be something they are getting out of it. It would be a terrible business model if it was truly for free.

As logic would have it, whatever these companies are getting out of you by offering you a “free” service must be more than they are putting in to give you that service. If this were not the case, there would be no economic sense in the whole affair.

Therefore, even if we may not realize it, we do pay for all the “free” services we consume online. It is only that we do not pay for them in monetary terms. There is another form of currency that these services demand that we find easy to part with.

The Commodity and The Currency

If “free” services are not necessarily free, then who pays for them? The answer is that the consumer of the “free” service gets to pay for it. The commodity is the consumer of the service and more specifically, their attention.

There is so much going on online at any one particular time. So much in fact that our attention becomes a precious commodity. Just among social media sites, you have to decide whether to spend most of your time on Facebook or Twitter, for example.

What this means for businesses dealing in the commodity of your attention is that the platform that holds your attention the most will proportionately reap the benefits. If a service can keep you engaged for a long time, it means they can better get and sell your attention to advertisers.

The commodity is also the currency. You sell your attention for the “free” service you are using in exchange for that service. The company offering the service in turn sells it to advertisers. Make no mistake, even if there is no money exchanged on your end, it is still a financial transaction.

And just to be clear, the company offering you the “free” service, does exchange your attention for actual money when they sell your attention to advertisers. Is there something sinister about this practice?

The Implications Of Transactions

Now that we have established that what is being offered for “free” online is not necessarily free, then what? What does this really mean?

Are the businesses offering these “free” services somehow stealing from you. Are their practices underhanded? In other words, are they doing anything wrong?

Does it mean that you should stop using social media or ‘free’ services like Gmail? You could take that approach but that would be very hard to do in this day and age since we have become so reliant on ‘free’ services and have developed an addiction to social media.

The answer to all these questions is; not at all. These companies are merely exercising their right to trade in what you are offering even though they are not upfront about it. My intention is to bring you to the awareness that your use of such services in not really for free.

I am merely suggesting that you become more aware that using these services comes at a cost, of which you should be aware. The biggest impact to consider in this scenario is that on your privacy.

Be aware that every time you go online and use Facebook, for example, that site is tracking you even when you visit other sites so that they can better sell you ads. And next time you go online know exactly what you are paying for to get that “free” service. 

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