Facebook's Product is You

Much of the debate about Facebook's new policies is missing another large issue. So far, the focus has been on privacy: essentially how to draw the messy line between public and private in the socially networked age. Just as important as where that line falls, however, is who owns the rights to use and redistribute the information artifacts left behind by your digital presence.

Here's an example from the offline world: I wrote a book for a publisher who likes to put author photos on the front cover, and so I was required to grant them the rights to my image. Two years later, I was walking through a book store and saw my picture on a combo-pack of books that I didn't even know existed. That was weird, but it was what I was explicitly told to expect when I signed my contact. I'm now a co-owner of my own image, but I got paid to share and I have a contract filed away. I can live with that.

Here's the question, though: what about that photo of you holding two beers and wearing a cowboy hat? Or the fact that you once listed "AIDS" as your relationship status, even though you quickly changed it. Facebook's database remembers. What about your religion ("Christian - Other") or your interests ("acoustic rock, avocados, unicycling") and the fact that three years ago your religion was something else ("Wiccan"). What about the fact that you keep looking at Christy's beach pictures over and over -- Facebook's database now shows 42 times in a month -- or that you are a member of the "Yes We Can!" group?

Forget about the privacy question for a moment, and put on your green accountant's visor. Let's talk about you, the product.

Every piece of information and every mouse click you make online is product. It is the product the modern web is making its money off of. Oo Nwoye hit the nail on the head when he put it this way: "On Facebook, the users are the products while the advertisers are the customers." The question is, where's your contract? How much agency do you have over the distribution of this product, and what do you get out of the bargain?

Thinking about it this way is important, because if you divide people into two groups, based on their privacy stance, I think you end up with two very different answers to the "Facebook problem":

  • If you are not OK with your information being sold, would you be willing to pay a monthly fee to have Facebook access but be guaranteed your information wasn't provided to third-parties? Facebook has to generate revenue to pay for the services they're providing you, and if they can't sell your personal information, you're going to have to cough up a subscription fee. (As an aside, danah boyd has a great article about social networking as a public utility, addressing the "I don't approve, but can't cancel my account" problem).

  • If you are OK with your information being sold, why are you letting someone else make all the money off of you? Why not sell it yourself? For those people who really don't care if corporations know that you are the founding member of the "Soccer is for Sissies" group, then why shouldn't you be the one to profit from that? Either sign a profit-sharing contract with Facebook or act as your own free agent. There is a huge market opportunity here: create a browser plugin that offers your personal data to every web page you visit. You have an asking price (say, 5 cents per page) and they have an offer. If their offer meets your asking price, you send them your personal data. Triple your asking price and you sell them your entire social history as well.

Here's my point: the privacy debate is real and important, but in order to tackle the societal challenges that the social networking era is throwing at us, we also need to start having a conversation that addresses the marketplace for our personal information. We are the products of this marketplace, every one of us, but I get the impression that we would rather pretend otherwise because it sounds bad to say it that way. Unless we acknowledge this bizarre new world, I fear we won't build a legal infrastructure around it that gives us the individual agency we deserve.