When you read the news or scan your favorite social media platforms, do you feel like the world is going crazy? Does your online browsing fill you with a vague (or not-so-vague) sense of impending global doom? Does it seem like everyone hates everyone, nobody can agree on anything, and all public conversations have devolved into a constant “us versus them” tug-of-war? If so, it’s because we’re all being manipulated by content creators — from YouTube vloggers to Fox News talking heads to Huffington Post reporters — who are trying to make us feel certain ways because it’s the best way to make money. Let me explain…
First, let’s start with the golden rule of the Internet: if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.
Pause for a moment and think about the kinds of things you use online in a given day that you don’t pay for:
- Your email
- Your social media
- Your search engine
- Your news
- Your product reviews
- Your maps/GPS
Now pause for another moment and think about how incredibly expensive it must be to operate those technologies for millions (and, in some cases, billions) of users. Take, for example, your phone’s navigation app. Surely mapping every road in the world isn’t cheap. Or consider the infrastructure requirements of YouTube. Surely a website with 500 hours of video content being uploaded to it every minute costs lots of money to operate.
And yet, how much are you paying Google for all those driving directions you’ve been given? How much are you paying YouTube (also Google) for all that Carpool Karaoke you’ve been binge watching?
If you’re not paying to use something, but it costs lots of money to exist (and the company behind it is worth billions of dollars), simple logic tells us the money for its existence has to come from somewhere. In most cases — particularly online content — that “somewhere” is advertising. In short, a social network like Instagram has millions of users. Companies with products to sell want access to those users, so they pay Instagram (or someone with a large following on Instagram) lots of money in order to promote their products.