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Thursday, 27 December 2012

People as a product!

In digital space, users are increasingly being shaped as commodities by various sites and services.

LAST week, social photo-sharing application Instagram caused an uproar when it announced changes to its terms and conditions.

The changes were related to its advertising policy, and were interpreted by many people as the company reserving the right to share user information and pictures with advertisers (or to be used in advertising) without permission.

Instagram has since reversed that policy and apologised for the “confusing” language, stating: “Legal documents are easy to misinterpret.” (You can read its response at

This seems to have pacified some users, but many are still fuming, while others have opted to try different photo-sharing apps as an alternative.

There are two primary issues with this. One is a privacy issue, in that the company would even consider sharing user information and pictures with its parent company Facebook and other third-party organisations (including advertisers).

The other is copyright; in the same response, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom wrote: “Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed.”

Users had every right to be upset. These are serious issues with severe repercussions, and it is becoming more and more common that online sites and applications are usurping the rights and control of their users. Facebook’s constant changing of privacy settings is legendary. The deeper we embed ourselves within such social network sites, the more we seem to get walled in.

As the days wear on, we find it increasingly harder to escape – most of our connections are in our social network of choice, our memories are stored within our profiles, and we are relying on it to be our source of information.

In many cases, we have come to depend on it for almost all of our interactions – we no longer need to remember people’s birthdays, we can send messages to each other conveniently without the need to store addresses, and we can broadcast our lives to all our friends at the click of a mouse.

Whether or not the reliance on such technology is a good thing is a different debate, but the fact is that the services these sites provide – it doesn’t matter if we never needed them before – are extremely useful.

However, many users don’t realise that this is still a service. Such technology has become so embedded in our lives that many of us have taken it for granted.

The fact that it is also primarily operated on the Internet has contributed to this sense of entitlement. Why buy newspapers when you get the news online for free? How many of us still send text messages via SMS now that there is iMessage, Blackberry Messenger and WhatsApp? With Skype and Viber, who needs to make traditional phone calls?

In some cases, it is easy to see how the companies behind them are making money. Newspapers now provide news for free (some have paywalls) with the hope of driving more traffic to their sites, which are plastered with advertising.

Apple and RIM, the maker of the Blackberry, promote their messaging systems to encourage people to buy their devices. Skype has a premium service that users can pay for as well as cheaper computer-to-phone rates which helps supplement its income. In that sense, the products these companies offer are obvious.

Social network sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter also have a product: You and me.

What they essentially do is no different from the media outlets – they sell their user base to advertisers. Unlike the print and broadcast media, however, these sites tend to have more information on their users which can be sorted or mined to help advertisers reach their target market.

Each update we post on these sites contains more information about our lives and what interests us – whether it’s in the words we use, the places we check in from or the photos we upload. And they have a lot of information. Citing European policy law, a student from the University of Vienna made a request to Facebook to hand over all the information it had on him. And Facebook provided it – all 1,200 pages of it.

The point here isn’t about how scary it is that a company has so much information on each of us – this too is a different debate.

The concern is that as technology advances, we are increasingly being shaped to be a product, and this is an awareness we have to carry with us constantly. It is pertinent to note that this is not a new phenomenon – the whole basis of the advertising industry is based on consumers being the product.

This is why newspapers are able to subsidise publishing costs to sell their products at a relatively low price (or in some cases, offer it for free) and why we get to watch television for “free”. Or pay very little.

We need this awareness because it will help us make decisions about how we navigate our digital lives. It will also help us reclaim some of the control – and our rights.

Instagram may have reversed that new policy for now, but there’s no saying it won’t come back in another form. Facebook has gotten away for many years with changes that its users do not like because few people are willing to walk away from it.

This is not to suggest that what these companies are doing is right. But the adage that nothing is free rings true in this situation. There are alternatives but each comes with a price.

The alternatives to these sites – some of which are on open-source platforms – may not be as polished and lack the critical mass to be as effective as the big social sites. Then there are the commercial entities which charge you (Flickr, for example, is capitalising on a sudden exodus from Instagram to its platform, offering its paying customers an additional three months of service).

It is only by carrying this awareness with us always that we can truly make the right decision – whether to stick with these companies, or stick it to them.

ReWired By Niki Cheong

Niki has just completed his MA Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London. Connect with him at or on Twitter via @nikicheong. Suggest topics and issues on digital culture, or pose questions, via email or on Twitter using the #Star2reWired hashtag. 

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