On Being the Product, and Other Forms of Subtle Exploitation

In Chapter 4 of A Networked Self, Mark Andrejevic argues that there is a need for increased research into the distinction between “commercial exploitation” and “willing participation” when it comes to online users’ information being harvested to deliver targeted advertising. Andrejevic explores the nature of mutually beneficial exchanges, and the exploitation of relationships and “immaterial labor” which some employers and advertisers have been practicing. This reminded me of a video by John Green, author and community organizer, who made a video stating that if a product or service online is “free” (a la Facebook), YOU are the product. Watch the video. It is thought-provoking, and raises the excellent point that information from social networking sites is being used for various marketing purposes. Users must be aware of this and choose how to conduct their online lives accordingly.

Users need to begin informing themselves about the various ways that their information could be used, and make decisions they are comfortable with about whether and how to present personal information. It is inevitable that profile information will be sold and used to target advertising.

The prevalence of targeted advertising adds a whole new dimension to the idea of a “networked public,” because the content and networks created by users online for specific, user-generated purposes are exploited by outside groups for purposes that may or may not benefit the users and the network. By this, I mean that I might use Facebook to stay in touch with family. But marketers are tracking every input I make on Facebook so they can better understand my relationships in order to sell me and my family more things. The “cost of doing business” (or the cost of socializing) is that my relationships expressed in my networked publics will be used to sell me things. Because Facebook is designed to facilitate the generation of commercially viable information, my relationships are being mediated by corporations. Now more than ever, our public is being designed and monitored by people who want to get their hands on our money by watching how we interact with family and friends. That’s a pretty scary thought. Especially because we all buy into it.