Jonathan Zittrain posted today that he is not the source of the quote widely attributed to him:
I participated in the Berkman Center’s fascinating HyperPublic symposium in the summer of 2011. When moderating a panel I invoked the aphorism that “When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” It’s a way of encapsulating the idea that online free services usually make money by extracting lots of data from users — and then selling that data, or using it for targeted availability of those users for advertising, to advertisers. In that sense, the advertisers are the clients, and the users enjoying free content are what’s being sold. (Of course, sometimes that happens even when the user pays.)
I didn’t coin the phrase, and since it was featured (and attributed to me!) in wordsmith.org’s wildly popular “word a day” as a thought for the day accompanying the word “enceinte” — I sought to nail down its provenance.
The first use of the quote that we can find is as a comment within the famed MetaFilter community in August 2010. The user’s name is blue_beetle, who might be someone named Andrew Lewis. It’s entirely possible I saw it there, as MeFi is one of my five favorite sites on the Web.
I was pretty sure this idea dates back further, so I went digging. First I found Josh Klein's 2009 blogpost, which cites Philip Broughton's 2008 book Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School
"My favorite moment comes in an anecdote about an MBA candidate who, not getting his way, complains to an administrator, “I’m the customer! Why are you treating me so badly?”
To which the administrator responds, “you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”
But the sense is not quite the same there - an MBA is not a free web service after all. Going back a little further, this 2006 discussion at Joel on Software Is the Magical Fairy-tale For Google Engineers about to End? (nicely prefiguring James Whittaker's Why I left Google) includes this contribution from Drew K:
Like clam pointed out, Google's customers are the advertisers. "Skooter" is a user. Just like with ad-supported broadcast TV, you're not the customer, you're the product.
From a Google perspective, you're not the customer. The ad service buyer is the customer. You're the commodity. By making you a more attractive commodity, i.e. by making sure to only serve you an ad if you are in the target population for it, they are making the ads pay better for their customers, and they can reap a large part of the difference to their competitors, the other ad services.
This isn't a new idea then, as the analogy to television makes clear. The earliest, most thorough exegesis of this idea I have found is Claire Wolfe's 1999 article Little brother is watching you The Menace of Corporate America which opens with:
Perhaps because you're not the customer any more. You're simply a "resource" to be managed for profit. The customer is someone else now — and usually someone without your best interests at heart.And has a continuing refrain of “Who is the Customer? Not you”, ending with
Who is the customer? Not you, whose life is reduced to someone else's salable, searchable, investigatable data. The customer is everyone who wishes to own a piece of your life.
The underlying warning is definitely worth thinking about — Maciej Ceglowski eloquently made the case for why you should pay Software Artisans on a recent TummelVision — but the deeper changes to what it means to be a customer matter too. There are other things we take part in without paying or being sold, because we find shared value in them, and the net enables those too.