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Being the Product

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LiamRepiso 17 October 2014 11:23am

If they keep this on permanently it might be the beginning of the end for Twitter. What an infuriatingly bad move. I remember when Facebook started forcing stupid features users didn’t want or agree to years back and it’s partly what’s generated its decline in recent years. We can fucking make decisions for ourselves thanks very much Twitter, we don’t need or want your shitty suggestions that you patronisingly inform me I may like. The “who to follow” tab on the side is enough. Seeing countless retweets on my timeline is bearable. But no, now you’re forcing us to read tweets of people we’re not even following, and don’t want to follow. At the end of the day we all know it’s about building your audience and keeping new users active; don’t insult my intelligence by telling me it’s a feature you “think I may like” on my timeline. Fuck off!

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/17/twitter-tweets-timeline-dont-follow?commentpage=1

This comment on the Guardian website sums up the feelings of countless Twitter users, as well as taps into a sentiment held by many former Facebook users. The wider issue is that important social media are fundamentally changing to aggressively increase revenue at the expense of the user experience and at the expense of user privacy.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on the same theme, it is a matter of the old adage that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Google pioneered this revenue model with Gmail that offered the best free email service with unlimited space. Once Gmail became the market leader they introduced new technology to read your emails and serve AdSense into the page. Their latest move is to actually put adverts in your email box. They offer advertisers highly targeted traffic, a valuable commodity. Nearly every update to the Google Privacy statement is all about gathering more information form free users to make them the dominant force in online ads.

Facebook was cool precisely because it was free of advertising. As the movie informs us the founders wanted to push subscriber numbers to the roof with the correct belief that Silicon Valley moguls  would swoop in to buy the start up. Sure enough not long after the corporate takeover of Facebook ads appeared in the side bar. Since then they have sought to monetize with paid ‘boosts’ to posts. Namely adding posts to your timeline from people you don’t follow. Exactly the same as Twitter is now doing. Facebook knows your interests, your education background, your job, your relationship status and perhaps your telephone number. They asked me to give them my tax details! Again it is harvesting the user information to offer sophisticated marketing services.

And again it is making you the Facebook user or Twitter user the ‘product’ that they can monetize. Nothing is for free. The only issue here is that it is not immediately apparent what you are giving away. The magic bullet for these big internet players is the terms and conditions / privacy policy update. They are long and cumbersome and only by clicking to agree can you continue to the page you were trying to get to. We brush them off like cobwebs in a doorway.

We forget that we are using a business with the profit motive as its core value to store our photos, our communications, our opinions and our links; indeed, it is a gold mine of information about opinions, consumer trends as well as information about how we are viewing the net and where we are going on the net. As people get sucked more and more into their online life the more this information becomes valuable.

Why would I voluntarily give so much to American companies? The same companies that until recently exploited a loophole in Irish law to avoid paying tax.

A parallel case is the free blog. Several companies offer this. At first it seems like a brilliant idea and a way to avoid paying for an URL or for hosting. Only on further deliberation do you realize that you lose control over your content. Moreover, that the ad revenue goes to the company (or you share it) and you are forced to agree to any changes. In most cases you don’t even have an email address to use if you want to complain. They ‘listen’ to forums and select who to respond to.

The assumption by the Silicon moguls is that people will be so ‘into’ Twitter, Facebook etc. that they will begrudgingly continue to use their services. They may lose a certain percentage of users but this is more than made up for by the increase in revenue. The same is the case with Amazon’s recent giant hike in postage costs and EBay’s new policy of removing the free listing option.

Whisper.sh

This company hit 3 billion page views in December 2013. It is like Twitter in that users post comments. These comments are decorated with background images. Unlike Twitter whisper users are anonymous and can only be contacted via the Whisper message board.

The contentious issue is that the website’s main reach is through the smartphone app which requires access to the subscriber’s contact list. It also has a geolocation ability that can track where user’s make posts. Whisper says this is private but that it would hand over all information to law agencies if necessary.

They went one step too far when they boasted to Guardian reporters that they could track people even when they had disabled the geo tracking. The whisper is that there are military and intelligence opportunities for this relatively new social media.  Presumably whistle-blowers will heed this rumour and not commit their faith and future liberty to the whisper promises of anonymity.

Whisper has since retracted all its comments and claims the Guardian accusations to be ‘100% false’. The Guardian is sure enough to stick by its reporters.

Again Whisper users are the product. Adding location to the raft of other user info including contact list is a ‘hot’ commodity with numerous potential customers. Again the free user is being turned into the product. We think you may [not] like this.

Implications

The age of the internet being the bringer of free services, a platform for free speech, anonymity and of sharing has come to an end. It is ownership now that best represents the internet (the darknet being a bid to reclaim the internet). The big companies hound those who illegally copy. They work with computer makers and Microsoft to push paid subscriptions. They not only own their stuff, they also own everything that you post and all the meta data such IP address, pages visited etc. .that goes with it.

The more that you reveal of yourself the more they believe they can monetize your interaction with their sites. It used to be that we were scared (rightly so) of government agencies spying on us. Now it is business that poses the biggest threat to our privacy. They are happy, as Whisper.sh, pointed out to give / sell this information to governments. It is a new version of the industrial-military complex.

What to do

Stop using mainstream social media sites in a heartfelt manner. Use them cynically or not at all. Use search engines that don’t present customizations based on previous search.  Clean your cookies regularly. Use an email provider that doesn’t read your communications. Use Tor to hide your IP address. Encrypt messages. Don’t share your contact list. Give false information. Don’t help but hinder. If the information is tainted it is less valuable. Fight back and stop willingly being the product.