If you aren’t paying, are your kids the product?

There’s a phrase – from where I don’t know – which says: “If you aren’t paying, you’re the product.”  Never has this felt truer than in the context of social media. Particularly Facebook, with its fan-pages and features, games and gizmos, plus never-ending updates and improvements. Who is paying for this, if not you…and what are they getting in return? The answer is actually quite straightforward.


Though it may have escaped most of our notices, Facebook is now little more than an extremely sophisticated marketing platform. Having spent years encouraging our online network-building, it now boasts an unrivalled – and unprecedented – audience of nearly 2 billion. And that’s not all; naturally, it also has access to all of these peoples’ personal tastes and preferences, educational and work history, their entire social circles (including details of their familial connections), their demographic data (age, sex, race, etc.), their geographic location (and the locations they have and plan to visit), their physical image, their hobbies, their current state of mind, their business plans and aspirations – and no doubt a number of other things I’m not clever enough to even think of.

In short, Facebook and its algorithms know more about us than we know about ourselves, and if you happen to be a business looking to sell something to the masses, you could do a lot worse than to cross its tiny blue palm with gold.

Now, 2 billion is A LOT of people. It’s more people than were alive just a hundred years ago in 1917. And given other big markets like Russia and China are hostile to these American invaders (they prefer VKontakte (known as VK) & Odnoklassniki and QZone, respectively) we could speculate that Facebook is nearing saturation point. After all, how many persuadables are left? These days our parents, our grandparents, even our pets are on aboard the Facebook fun bus.

Fear not, however. Just as Mr. Zuckerberg must have been tearing-up for having no-more worlds to conquer, the Silicon Valley brain trust have come good. The answer was three feet beneath their noses the whole time: kids, of course!

Think about it. Kids – I hate to say it – are the greediest little consumers of all. They talk about nothing but what they want, need, like, and absolutely can’t stand. Their social media utterances would be manna from heaven to machine learning algorithms looking to identify the sources of desire.

But there’s a problem. People tend to be precious about their children, and they’re usually keen to keep them away from the black hole of unknowns that is social media. The idea of a six-year-old accepting friend requests from unknown shadowy characters, or stumbling across a crude meme that puns on cats and female genitalia, is something quite repellent for most conscientious parents. That’s why, until now, Facebook has been locked to pre-teens.

Enter, Messenger Kids. A shiny new Facebook app which covers-off each and every parental paranoia (which mostly revolve around their small children being drawn into conversations with middle-aged men named Barry…). Indeed, Facebook is at considerable pains to emphasize safety – which I’m not, even for a second, suggesting is a bad thing. I’m simply saying that it shouldn’t be the only concern of those who have reason to be concerned.

Let’s look at the good here. Firstly, Barry is unlikely to get anywhere near your 6-12-year-old kids on this thing. Parents must approve each of the child’s friendships. Secondly, they won’t see any of the weird and wonderful images that circulate on regular Facebook. There’s a library of approved gifs and jpegs, all of which have been deemed child-appropriate. Thirdly, Facebook won’t use information from kid’s conversations to retarget parents. So, you will not end-up with a newsfeed full of cuddly toys and Frozen merchandize – Mark has been merciful in this respect at least.

Lastly, this is not pre-training for “grown-up” Facebook. Once children hit 13, they will not automatically graduate to the full horrors of the adult version. If they do, as with the rest of us, it will be their choice. Facebook is not making any assumptions (and it won’t have each child’s exact age anyway).

So, what’s the problem? Well there may not be one, but there are certainly good reasons to be skeptical about this new spin-off.

Perhaps the most obvious concern, is that we don’t really know what Facebook does to adult’s brains, never mind those of impressionable children. Lots of anxieties have been expressed lately about the ways in which social media plays upon our cognitive biases, encourages our addictions, and constantly, incessantly calls for our attention. Not least because of those “like” buttons, which will be included on Messenger Kids to introduce pre-teens to the oppressive peer validation we’ve all become slaves to.

Critically, these concerned voices aren’t limited to consumer groups and privacy campaigners – many of them are former internet practitioners who are worried about what the future holds. Ex-Google strategist, James Williams, has described the persuasive algorithmic techniques of familiar mechanisms like Google search results and the Facebook newsfeed as, “the largest, most standardized and most centralized form of attentional control in human history.”

Many might rather their offspring weren’t the guinea pigs for the kid’s version of this mind manipulation, given we adults are now so utterly obsessed that we reportedly touch our phones no fewer than 2,617 time per day…

Another issue – which admittedly may just be my issue – is that the reason for giving in and letting children use Messenger Kids it is a bit lame. The BBC says that, “the prevailing mood is that since kids are using social networks, you might as well do what you can to make sure that use is safe and monitored.” This is the internet equivalent of that friend’s mum who lets all the teenagers drink at their house so they can (supposedly) monitor and contain the carnage. It’s not that this approach is necessarily wrong, it’s just that it’s weak. It’s not a stance. Is it okay for pre-teens to use social media or not? The ambiguity leaves us none-the-wiser.

Finally, the last problem I see takes us back to where we started: Facebook as first-class marketeers.  It comes down to this:

“Messenger Kids will of course collect data: the child’s name, the content of the messages, and typical usage reports for how the app is used. Facebook will share that information with third parties, which must have data protection policies that comply with Coppa, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the US.” (BBC)

Facebook will be harvesting, aggregating, analyzing, and selling, just as they do as part of their normal business. Only, apparently, less.

What your children say, do, want and like will be forensically picked through by commercial parties. It will be used to launch strategies, to push products, to find whatever weak underbellies are still unexposed. That sweet, strange, inventive gobbledygook by which children generally communicate will be trawled through by algorithms employed by ad-men desperate to boost their bottom-line with some precious insight pertaining to the next generation. In short – if they possibly can be – childhood ramblings will be commodified as a direct result of Messenger Kids. Otherwise, what’s the point?

According to CNN, the launch of this new app is part of a Facebook strategy to grow its user base. This is not because Mark Zuckerberg needs more friends, or because he loves to see the daisy-chains of human connections blossom. It is because there is money to be made, and your child’s data is the oil at the bottom of a drying well of new opportunity. They are, “like” it or not, the product.

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