Should we be bowing to social media?
Japan's Rugby Union team bow after their defeat by Samoa. (Credit: John Giles / PA)   

In Japan it is customary to bow in situations where westerners would shake hands. The depth and duration of the bow embodies the degree of respect due to the person being bowed to. The precise etiquette is so complex that western visitors are sometimes advised to not bow at all.

Oh, those excrutiatingly subtle Japanese! How lucky we are in the West to have the straightforward, egalitarian handshake.

Sorry, a bit of (British) irony there. Japanese bowing etiquette is, of course, a formal expression of what we all do informally i.e. modulate our behaviour towards others according to how we evaluate our relationship with them. This applies as much to the organisations we interact with as it does to individuals. And, as with individuals, we like to know where we stand – especially with those organisations that have the greatest presence in our lives.

Given how much of our lives are now lived online, our relationships to social media companies are correspondingly important – and yet the nature of that relationship is notoriously unclear. You may be a Facebook user, but as you don’t pay for the service can you really think of yourself as a Facebook customer? But if not a customer, then what are you?

The newly received wisdom is that ‘you are the product’, but is that true?

In a thought-provoking essay for Slate, Will Oremus tracks down the origin of the phrase and goes on to question its validity:

“It’s easy to see why ’you are the product’ is so resonant these days. In a time of confusing data-privacy scandals and mysterious machine-learning algorithms, it offers a deliciously simple explanation for internet companies’ alleged misdeeds. Facebook doesn’t really care about its users, the saying implies, because they’re not the ones ultimately opening their wallets; advertisers are. We’d be fools to expect otherwise from a free service!”

It’s not that Oremus entirely disagrees. The problem with being ‘products’, however, is that products don’t fight back:

“It’s 2018, and it’s time for Facebook’s critics to move past what has become a tired cliché. There’s something nihilistic about telling people they’re the product of a gigantic corporation and there’s nothing they can do about it. ‘You are the product’ paints us as powerless pawns in Facebook’s game but gives us no leverage with which to improve our predicament.”

Perhaps we should see ourselves as slaves – rebellious ones:

“Just as bees labor unwittingly on beekeepers’ behalf, our posts and status updates continually enrich Facebook. But we’re humans, not bees, and as such we have the capacity to collectively demand better treatment. The technologist and activist Jaron Lanier, carrying this analogy to its logical conclusion in the book Who Owns the Future?, suggested that users of Facebook and other data-hungry online services rise up and demand actual monetary compensation for their data.”

It’s true that Facebook’s content is substantially user-generated, but then that’s what Facebook is for – it is a tool that enables people to share information. A vacuum cleaner is a tool for cleaning carpets (and pretty useless if not used for that purpose) – but does that mean James Dyson should pay us for doing our housework?

Even if we were paid for the content we create online, its market value would, in most cases, be so small that we’d need to bring back the mite.

Perhaps we could be seen as ‘paying’ for our use of social media in other ways – for instance in the time we spend consuming other people’s content (including adverts) or in the information we allow the social media companies to harvest from us? Oremus argues that these things ‘cost’ us and therefore we can rightly see ourselves as customers (who are owed the respect normally due from a supplier).

The trouble with this argument is that these costs don’t really accrue to the individual user. Yes, spending too much time on Facebook isn’t good for you, but nor is playing computer games all night or eating too much chocolate. It is not your over-consumption of a product that makes you a customer, but the fact that you purchased it – except that, in the case of Facebook, you didn’t.

As for the issue of personal data and privacy – there is no cost unless the data is misused in some way (better targeted advertising hardly counts). One could argue that the issue is not the cost to the user, but the unpaid-for benefit to the social media company. But again, individual payments would be tiny and, in any case, the social media company provides a service in return – i.e. free access to the site .

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the tech lords aren’t acquiring enormous power to make and manipulate markets (or even electorates). Nor do I deny their unprecedented influence over the flow of information or the devastating impact that online advertising has had on print journalism. As for the impact of social media on our culture or its combined ‘distraction effect’ on our economic productivity, those too are real concerns.

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However, all of these costs are primarily collective – affecting individuals whether they choose to use social media or not. The tax avoidance for which the tech sector is infamous only adds insult to the injury.

It is therefore as nations, not individuals, that we need to deal with the tech companies – and we need leaders with the brains and the guts to get a better one.