Yes, it’s true that “consumers sometimes forget the bargain they made in exchange for the free services”.
But it’s also true that almost nobody reads Facebook’s “Terms of Service“, much less anybody else’s. Not long ago I posted about the terms for Verizon and AT&T services. Each was over 10,000 words long and boiled down to “We can cut you off at any time for any reason we like and you have no recourse.”
All these ToSes are asymmetrical to a degree that verges on slavery. What’s the point of even looking at them? If we want the services, we do the deal. If the service is free, all the better. That these bargains are faustain has been known for the duration.
Do we have to continue to make them? The answer is yes, as long as we deal with the devil from a position of near-absolute weakness.
That weakness was more than learned — it was institutionalized — in the Industrial Age. That was a long period of business history during which we came to think that markets are all about What Big Companies Do, and that a “free” market is “Your choice of walled garden”. I wrote about this in Go from Hell, back in September. Here’s the section that pertains most to the Facebook Matter at hand:
Alvin Toffler explored this irony in The Third Wave, published in 1980, where he said:
(The Industrial Age) violently split apart two aspects of our lives that had always been one… production and consumption… In so doing, it drove a giant invisible wedge into our economy, our psyches … it ripped apart the underlying unity of society, creating a way of life filled with economic tension.
I wrote about that split, that tension, in Listen up, back in 1998 — eighteen years after The Third Wave and nine years before now.
David Weinberger and I also wrote about it a year later, in this chapter of Cluetrain. We called it “The Axe in Our Heads”:
Ironically, many of us spend our days wielding axes ourselves. In our private lives we defend ourselves from the marketing messages out to get us, our defenses made stronger for having spent the day at work trying to drive axes into our customers’ heads. We do both because the axe is already there, the metaphorical embodiment of that wedge Toffler wrote about — the one that divides our jobs from our lives. On the supply side is the producer; on the demand side is the consumer. In the caste system of industry, it is bad form for the two to exchange more than pleasantries.
Thus the system is quietly maintained, and our silence goes unnoticed beneath the noise of marketing-as-usual. No exchange between seller and buyer, no banter, no conversation. And hold the handshakes.
When you have the combined weight of two hundred years of history and a trillion-dollar tide of marketing pressing down on the axe in your head, you can bet it’s wedged in there pretty good. What’s remarkable is that now there’s a force potent enough to actually start loosening it.
Here’s the voice of a spokesperson from the world of TV itself, Howard Beale, the anchorman in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network who announced that he would commit suicide because “I just ran out of bullshit.” Of course, he had to go insane before he could at last utter this truth and pull the axe from his own head.
We’re all still Howard Beales today. We haven’t run out of bullshit, and there’s no less cause for anger than there was when Network, The Third Wave and Cluetrain each came out. The Information Age is here, but its future is not just (as William Gibson put it) unevenly distributed. Large parts of it aren’t here at all. The largest of those is actual empowerment of customers — in ways that are native to customers, rather than privileges granted by vendors. The difference is huge.
That’s why yelling doesn’t work. What we need instead is to make tools that work for us, and not just for them. We need to invent tools that give each of us independence from vendor control, and better ways of telling vendors what we want, when we want it, and how we want to relate — on our terms and not just on theirs. As Neo said to the Architect, “The problem is choice”. That problem will be with us as long as that axe is in our heads.
All of this comes up because Facebook has done three things that are at once extremely innovative, extremely rude, extremely helpful, and extremely disconcerting:
1. They are collecting and republishing user data on a level not before seen by users.
2. They are allowing advertisers to use this data to reach these users.
3. They are not giving this information–information that has put their value at $15 billion–back to their users.
Depending on who you are, or what your goals are at a particular time, you might find extreme pleasure or discomfort in each of these.
What matters is the first point. (Forgive me, but the others are red herrings, even if you’re an entrepreneur hoping to make money on the advertising gravy train.) Facebook crossed a line here. They lured us into a vast stockyard, and then began to monetize us in ways that violated our quaint notion that we are not in fact cattle.
Treating users of free services like cattle is as old as TV, radio and billboards. It may be as old as people painting in caves with charcoal and spit. The difference now isn’t in Facebook’s manners, which are no different than those of NBC or the New York Times. The difference isn’t even that this time it’s personal. That’s been a holy grail for advertising since the beginning as well. Facebook is reaching for a golden ring here, and I’m inclined to forgive them for doing that.
The main difference is that we’re not powerless any more. That was the core message of this line from Cluetrain:
If we want our reach to truly exceed Facebook’s grasp, we can’t just tell Facebook to stop grasping. We have do deals on our terms and not just theirs. We have to have real relationships and not just systems on the sell side built only to “manage” us, mostly by minimizing human contact.
Perhaps most of all, we need to come up with systems that help demand find supply, rather than just ones that help supply find (or “create”) demand. That means we need alternatives to the outmoded and inefficient system of guesswork we call advertising.
That doesn’t mean we make advertising go away. But it does mean that we find new paths between demand and supply. and it does mean that find ways to get unwanted advertising out of our face.
[Later…] Alan Patrick sees a tipping point.