You’re Not the Customer; You’re the Product

Richard Serra? Carlota Fay Schoolman? Steve Atkins? Tom Johnson? Claire Wolfe? Andrew Lewis? blue_beetle? Tim O’Reilly?

Dear Quote Investigator: For decades the most powerful mass medium has been television. The internet has dramatically shifted our access to information. Nowadays, society reflects upon itself by using internet search engines. Yet, both of these fundamental channels of communication, access, and synthesis are primarily supported by advertising. A pithy expression explicates the resultant skewed perspective:

You’re not the customer; you’re the product.

Would you please explore the history of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 the artists Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman broadcast a short video titled “Television Delivers People”. An anodyne soundtrack played while sentences in white text on a blue background slowly scrolled upward. The messages displayed thematically matched the saying under exploration. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Commercial television delivers 20 million people a minute.
In commercial broadcasting the viewer pays for the privilege of having himself sold.
It is the consumer who is consumed.
You are the product of t.v.
You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer.
He consumes you.
The viewer is not responsible for programming——
You are the end product.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1989 “The New York Times” published a review titled “Video Is Making Waves in the Art World” of a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The artwork by Serra and Schoolman was included in the exhibit: 2

Richard Serra, who is best known for his imposing sheet-steel sculptures like “Tilted Arc,” produced one of early video’s most astringent pieces in “Television Delivers People,” featured in “Image World.” Its only images are words, which scroll up the screen in a slow but constant motion, conveying such simplistic critical messages as “You are the product of TV.”

In 1999 the company AllAdvantage launched a service that showed advertisements to individuals while they browsed the internet. The ads appeared on the top or bottom of the computer display. Viewers received 50 cents per hour compensation with a cap of $20 a month. 3

In December 1999 a message transmitted via the Usenet discussion system from Steve Atkins discussed AllAdvantage and employed a statement similar to the saying under analysis: 4

If you want to sell crap, alladvantage punters are not a bad demographic to advertise to. This isn’t meant to imply anything about any individual AA punter, just about the demographics.

The punters are not the customer, they’re the product. Anyone who’s an AA punter is being sold for a few pennies an hour.

The author Claire Wolfe wrote an article with a 1999 copyright date titled “Little Brother Is Watching You: The Menace of Corporate America” which discussed electronic markets for personal data, biometric systems, black box recorders in cars, and other technologies used to track people. A snapshot of the article was saved by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine in August 2000. The central thesis of Wolfe’s essay was thematically pertinent: 5

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. . . .

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.

In June 2001 a message in the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.tv.interactive from Tom Johnson featured a subject line that exactly matched the saying: 6

Subject: You’re not the customer, you’re the product.

The body of the message included the following:

To review: Television viewers aren’t the customers, they’re the product, and younger demographics are more desirable to advertisers because they’re dumb enough to pay attention to ads.

In August 2010 the website Metafilter published an article about the news aggregator Digg. A commentator using the handle blue_beetle made an incisive remark. The profile of blue_beetle provided the name Andrew Lewis: 7

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

In September 2010 influential publisher Tim O’Reilly tweeted the above remark while crediting Lewis by pointing to the Metafilter webpage: 8

Yes! RT @bryce love this quote “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” http://bit.ly/93JYCJ

In 2012 the book “Fake It: Your Online Identity Is Worth Gold: Guide to Digital Selfdefense” included the saying: 9

“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” So said an Internet user with the screen name blue_beetle, whose supposed real name is Andrew Lewis, in a post in August 2010. It caught on as a meme and rallying cry for people who don’t buy the “free” tricks anymore that web companies play on us.

In conclusion, this saying evolved over time. Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman crafted an interesting precursor in 1973. A strong match was written by Tom Johnson in 2001. An extended statement was written by Andrew Lewis in 2010.

Images Notes: 3D Illustration of person holding display and person using a laptop computer. Both images from 3dman_eu at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Doug Leigh whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Leigh referred to the work of Serra and Schoolman. He also pointed to Andrew Lewis and others. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering effort on this topic. Thanks also to Sean Murphy of SKMurphy and Kevin Marks for pointing to the essay by Claire Wolfe.)

Notes:

  1. YouTube Video, Title: Richard Serra “Television Delivers People” (1973), Authors of video: Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, Uploaded on Feb 2, 2011, Uploaded by: KunstSpektrum, Copyright date within video: Mar 30, 1973, (Quotation starts at 0 minute 54 seconds of 6 minutes 55 seconds) (Video of scrolling text with canned soundtrack music; Text criticizes the corporate and advertiser control of television content), (Accessed on youtube.com on May 13, 2017) link
  2. 1989 November 17, New York Times, Video Is Making Waves in the Art World by Andy Grundberg, Start Page C1, Quote Page C34, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1999 March 30, Associated Press Archive, Article: Internet users can get paid to surf the Web, Author: Martha Mendoza (AP Business Writer), Dateline: San Jose, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  4. 1999 December 19, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: news.admin.net-abuse.email, From: Steve Atkins @blighty.com, Subject: Re: alladvantage, (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 15, 2017) link
  5. Internet Archive: Way Back Machine, Web capture date: August 23 2000, Archive download URL: www.loompanics.com/Articles/LittleBrother.html, Title: Little Brother Is Watching You: The Menace of Corporate America, Author: Claire Wolfe, Copyright date on webpage: 1999, Publisher: Loompanics. (Accessed at web.archive.org on July 17, 2017) link
  6. 2001 Jun 22, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.arts.tv.interactive, From: Tom Johnson @aol.com, Subject: You’re not the customer, you’re the product. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 15, 2017) link
  7. Website: Metafilter, Article title: User-driven discontent, Article author: Rhaomi (Jordan M.), Comment author: blue_beetle (Andrew Lewis), Date on website: August 26, 2010, Website description: MetaFilter is one of the oldest online communities. It is owned by Matt Haughey, run by Josh Millard, and staffed by a team of moderators. (Accessed metafilter.com on July 15, 2017) link
  8. Tweet, From: Tim O’Reilly @timoreilly, Time: 3:17 PM, Date: September 2, 2010, Text: If you’re not paying for it…, (Accessed on twitter.com on July 16, 2017) link
  9. 2012, Fake It: Your Online Identity Is Worth Gold. Guide to Digital Selfdefense by Pernille Tranberg and Steffan Heuer, Chapter 2: You Are the Product, Unnumbered Page, Published by Berlingske in collaboration with People’s Press, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Google Books Preview)