If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold. #

On the face of it there's something rhythmic and sensible about this quote. It rings true. But lately I've seen it used in the same vein as bumper stickers, T-shirts and yoda-isms — as an awesome display of intelligence, so fierce it concludes a discussion by virtue of being an awesome quote. Because surely no-one knowingly wants to be a product, right? Yet almost like a Godwins law for freemium services, this quote is fast becoming a platitude. The statement is like a safe-for-work version of saying "you're a prostitute". It pops up in every discussion comparing native apps to web-apps, Apple to Google or even Facebook to Google+.

I'm here to tell you today that no, smugly uttering that "you're the product being sold" does not put an end of any dispute. The quote itself is like the old adage: "there's no such thing as a free meal", only smugger. Since slavery is abolished, you being the product that's apparently sold for cash value to ensure your continuing free service can't well refer to actually selling people as property. So it must refer to your click, your location, your interests — or even your personal information. Talking ad-supported websites as an example, the freemium scale ranges from showing ads that aren't very personalized such as those from The Deck or Text Link Ads, to contextual ads such as Google AdSense which personalizes ads based on surrounding keywords. Then there are the people that want to scam you, such as the mechanic that legally can't let you drive out of here without four new tires, or the African prince that needs a favor from you. So long as there are suckers there are predators.

The fact that there exists douchebags, is that an indictment of the entire freemium model, though? If you are to take the quote at face value: undeniably yes. The quote, standing on its own, clearly indicates that if you're doing something without paying for it, you're being sold. Right? Which means you're being sold:

  • searching on Google or Bing
  • researching Gutenberg for your school project
  • using an online dictionary to translate "stupidity" into french
  • using Skype to call your grandma
  • bidding on an A-Team lunchbox on eBay
  • reading up on broccoli on Wikipedia
  • watching television
  • tasting free samples with a stick in it at Walmart

All those things are free. So it must mean "you're being sold", right?

Let's flip it on its head. What can you do without being "sold", then? You could:

  • read The New York Times using a paid subscription
  • buy stuff using 1-Click on Amazon
  • buy the Wolfram Alpha app and search the web using only that
  • buying 4 new tires because the mechanic can't legally let you drive away
  • use Skype to call grandma's landline

Because surely none of those services would ever try to milk you for dimes in a non-obvious way, would they?

The truth of the matter is that you're being advertised to all the time. I'll let Fry from Futurama elaborate:

Leela: Didn't you have ads in the 21st century?

Fry: Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.

It's difficult for me to put it more simply than this: when ever you see an advertisement, any advertisement, if this quote is to be believed, it means "you're being sold".

I'm not a fan of ads, no siree, but I recognize that they make services possible that would otherwise not be viable. Even the companies that are purportedly not "selling you" have stats packages installed on their webservers and advertise their products to you on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky.

There's a lot of sarcasm in this post, and I'm somewhat apologetic for that. I used the reductio ad absurdum technique to follow the initial quote to absurd consequences and then I criticised the end result. In my mind uttering the quote makes you look inarticulate, but I also acknowledge that it's just not that simple. I use freemium products every day, and while I'm eternally vigilant to douchebags, I happen to live a pretty good life knowing that ads are being targetted towards me. But don't call me a prostitute, until you look at the man in the mirror.

2 thoughts on “Freemium

  1. Very interesting post, Joen. As someone who has contributed quite a bit of editing time to Wikipedia and several quotes to a crowd-sourced e-book, I have always felt that I have been contributing to a ‘greater good’ or that my contribution was philanthropic. I hadn’t really considered it as an economic exchange where I was the blissfully unaware buyer. Yes, I can see a future tech where targeted ads appear based on your use of apps and browsers but will there be auto-deductions from your bank accounts?!

    1. damoward,

      Wikipedia is an excellent example, because even if there are donation drives, I don’t consider Wikipedia a “freemium” product. I consider it almost a public service, and I completely share your idealism. In fact I think Wikipedias ad-free model is part of the reason why individuals such as yourself spend their precious time for the greater good.

      On the flipside, what if one day Wikipedias donation drives can’t muster the funds to keep the operation running? The operation is getting bigger every day by virtue of increasing popularity, and so do the expenses. If that day comes, and I hope and believe it doesn’t, I’d rather see ads on Wikipedia than see it go away, and I wouldn’t care if those ads were targetted or generic.

      Ads on Wikipedia may sound preposterous on the face of it, but consider Wookieepedia and Memory Alpha, the Star Wars and Star Trek wikis. They’re hosted by ad supported Wikia. So at least a number of users will contribute despite ads.

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