Should you be paid for using Facebook?

After all, you're the product it mines for data to sell to its corporate customers

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EDMONTON, AB, Jan 2, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Every now and then Facebook, the massively popular online social networking site, redesigns its user interface. This is always followed by a massive outcry of users saying they preferred the previous way the site worked before and starting online petitions to get it changed back. These are never successful but almost no one leaves Facebook because of it – after all, what other service has all their friends and family on it?

I’ve always found these outbreaks of rage amusing. Facebook’s users are acting as if they are the customer Facebook serves and whom it must cater to. They’re not – they’re the product.

Using Facebook at your peril

Facebook’s corporate purpose is to build the greatest collection of consumer data ever gathered and use it to sell targeted advertising. All the posts, photographs, Likes, and shares of its over a billion regular users are all stored and processed by sophisticated algorithms searching for correlations.

Simply put, you are training Facebook to be better able to target ads at yourself and people like you. The same goes for using Google and other “siren servers” – a term coined by computer scientist Jaron Lanier – services that offer an outwardly free service (blogging, photo sharing, tweeting, video watching) to attract users whose information it then harvests.

Working for free

You may wonder what the big deal is: newspapers, magazines, and television, after all, provide low-cost or free entertainment and information to people while asking them to look at a few ads. How is that different from Facebook? The difference with Facebook and the other siren servers is that the old media did not invade your privacy or collect extremely detailed information about you, your interests, and your friends and family. Shouldn’t you get some compensation for all the work you’re doing for Zuckergberg and company?

The issue isn’t just the invasion of privacy; it’s that the siren servers collect economic value while destroying it elsewhere in the economy. In his book Who Owns The Future, Lanier gives the example of online translation services. These increasingly more competent translation engines (like Babelfish and Google Translate) are billed as wonders of artificial intelligence when they are in fact nothing but statistical mathematics – they work by comparing phrases you give them to already translated passages in works made by professional translators. Those translators are not compensated for the use of their translations in training the software, and these services erodes the demand for human translators.

Siren servers use material generated by human beings without compensating them, pretending that it’s all the magic of computer science and “smart” machines. In the future, self-driving automobiles, having been trained by the observation of human drivers, may replace the millions of people who drive trucks and taxis for a living. This destroys real jobs and, with them, the wealth of the middle class.

Lanier worries that this middle-class erosion will lead not to a lasting plutocracy but to a severe socialist backlash – something he, a committed capitalist, wants to prevent at all costs. This backlash would stifle innovation and individual initiative. The solution he advocates is to do away with the free model – no longer would you access articles, photos, or videos for free but would instead do so by micropayments (fees less than one cent) for each access. The software architecture of the internet would need to change as well – links would have to be two-directional as opposed to one direction, meaning that every file accessed would know what links to it.

Parasitical services

This would make it possible to compensate the content creators – the poster of a funny cat video could make thousands of dollars in a day for receiving millions of views, while an obscure scholar could build a retirement nest egg through the occasional but over a lifetime copious references to their work. It would be the foundation of a new online economy, compensating people for their now unknowingly volunteered work.

Whether Lanier’s proposal is right or not, it is time to stop pretending that the services we enjoy online are free, and time to start wondering about how we all pay the costs.

Michael Flood is a marketing writer and communications consultant. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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