23 May 2011

Toiling in the Satanic Mills

The clever quote doing the rounds at present was posted on MetaFilter by blue_beetle on August 26, 2010:
If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.”

What blue_beetle does so nicely with this elegantly worded statement is make you think about your place in the digital economy. I want to think about that, but specifically about myself as a cog in the two largest machines in town – Google and Facebook.

Examining Facebook in economic terms is difficult, as it’s still a private company and so therefore can keep its finances to itself. It does like to boast though, so we know in 2010 it had advertising revenues of $1.86 billion, and about 500 million active users. Divide one by the other and you can see that a single one of the products made by Facebook (e.g. me) provide them with an annual revenue of $3.72 – maybe time for Zuckerberg to crack the fucking whip?

Google’s a bit easier in some respects because as a public company it has to produce an annual report for shareholders. From this we can see it had revenues in 2010 of $29.321 billion, but expenses incurred in obtaining that revenue of $18.94 billion, so a net revenue of $10.381 billion. Of course Google is a more diverse company than Facebook, so these revenues are from more than just advertising. Still, without products such as yours truly running Chrome as their browser and deriding Bing at any opportunity, Google wouldn’t exist at all. So let’s be generous and divide things up equally - 85% of the world’s 2 billion internet users use Google, so each is responsible for one one-hundred and seventy millionth of the revenue. This works out at $6.11 per person.

Looking at the quote again we can see we’re not really a product - that just sounds cool. Google couldn’t sell us, because who’d buy? As always, we’re human capital, toiling away not only for our own boss, but also for Zuckerberg and the worthy shareholders at Google. We make them money (nearly $10 a year) and in return we can look up stuff, have somewhere to put this blog; have somewhere to organise a party, then show pictures from it. I’m not a product, I’m a sharecropper.

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