How much is your contact list worth?
Dan Lyons explains that the Internet economy only looks free. In fact, it's just operating off of a new medium of exchange: privacy.
What's happening is that our privacy has become a kind of currency. It's what we use to pay for online services. Google charges nothing for Gmail; instead, it reads your e-mail and sends you advertisements based on keywords in your private messages.
The real holy grail is your list of friends. With that information, marketers can start sending more targeted messages. If you like a certain movie, or album, or mountain bike, your friends will probably like those, too. So they'll be good targets for ads for those products. Of course, your friends are not going to buy everything you do. It's not pinpoint accuracy. But the data helps marketers "narrowcast" their advertising. And it sure beats buying commercials on TV or splattering ads all over the Internet.
The genius of Google, Facebook, and others is that they've created services that are so useful or entertaining that people will give up some privacy in order to use them. Now the trick is to get people to give up more—in effect, to keep raising the price of the service.
These companies will never stop trying to chip away at our information. Their entire business model is based on the notion of "monetizing" our privacy. To succeed they must slowly change the notion of privacy itself—the "social norm," as Facebook puts it—so that what we're giving up doesn't seem so valuable...The problem with buying things with your privacy is you really don't know how much you're paying. With money, five bucks is five bucks. But what is the value of your list of friends?
Photo credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian.
February 19, 2010; 10:06 AM ET
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