There’s a perhaps apocryphal anecdote that’s been spreading around for years that Target, based on the buying habits of its female customers, often knows before they do if they’re pregnant. Which is wonderful.
It’s a sign that Target is working feverishly to know its customers, and to have in stock what its customers want when they want it. And often before they want it. Please stop and think about this.
And in thinking about it, consider the anecdotes that emerged from the old Soviet Union. At restaurants the menus were immaterial, as were orders placed by customers. Dinner was whatever inedible food item that the restaurant had in the kitchen, and that they chose to put in front of you. Peter Osnos was Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post back in the 1970s, and was notably fashionable. During the Moscow years he and his wife cut each other’s hair so awful were the alleged hairdressers. In The Russians, Soviet-era New York Times Moscow bureau chief Hedrick Smith remarked that while Americans complained endlessly about lines for gasoline in the 1970s (logically born of price controls), in the Soviet Union there were lines for everything, and everything was substandard on the very slim assumption that anything was available.
Such is life in a country bereft of a profit motive. Put another way, if profits are illegal what’s the point of learning about one’s customers?
This is all worth keeping in mind as an intensely spoiled pundit class beats up Big Tech for essentially making its users “the product.” Supposedly there’s something sinister about this profit motive. It’s become especially noisy since Elon Musk had the temerity to suggest that “Blue Check” users of Twitter should pay for the designation. In response whiny pundits essentially claimed Twitter should be paying them for making Twitter such a popular destination, or that Musk’s officious ways should cause people to get off of social media altogether. They're bluffing. Kind of like the celebrities who claim in every election cycle that they'll leave the U.S. if so-and-so wins.
As evidenced by the deep in thought, famous, or both attaining the checks in the first place, Twitter is very valuable to its most prominent users. While access to the site is free such that users are the “product,” stop and think how valuable a prominent Twitter presence is to those who are either important, or just think they are. Some monetize the latter through the publication of books, some through payment for pageviews of their opinion pieces, some through promotion of a new movie or television show, and some through handsome pay that springs from side or full-time work as “influencers.” If anything, Musk should be charging the brats with the blue checks quite a bit more. As their usage indicates, they get much more than $8/month out of Twitter. All the designated give up is better knowledge of themselves so that – yes – Twitter can direct advertisers to those most likely to be interested in whatever they’re selling.
Facebook should be viewed similarly, along with its subsidiary in Instagram. Users are exposed to more and more of what they want in return for revealing more of themselves to Facebook and Instagram. And the “products” feel violated? Or used? Oh please, they doth protest way too much as anyone who has spent time on either Facebook or Instagram knows very well. Lest we forget, the users of both sites frequent both given an unquenchable desire to tell thousands – and millions – all about themselves. Yet Facebook, or Meta is the enemy for snooping? And what of the myriad businesses that have been launched free of marketing costs thanks to these two essential sites? Here’s a bet: if Facebook and Instagram ever charge for usage they won’t see visits fall much at all. The social media giants are a bargain.
What about Amazon? Supposedly it “listens” to us through Alexa, and no doubt learns enormous amounts about us from what we buy and don’t buy on Amazon itself. Yet some are bothered. Why? Would Amazon shoppers prefer reduced access to goods and services in concert with slower delivery? The question answers itself.
It all speaks yet again to just how spoiled Americans have become, and realistically how clueless they are to what life would be like absent the profit motivated. Amazon is spying on us not because it’s in cahoots with the federal government, but precisely because it’s not. And since it’s not, it’s endlessly searching for ways to understand us so that it can first meet our needs, and even better, anticipate what we might need. Call out for Alexa if you’re wondering about the meaning of the previous sentence.
In a sense all the whining is a sign of progress. If Americans are this spoiled, life must be pretty grand. And that’s a good thing. Still, it’s difficult to not occasionally yearn for the entitled to have a taste of the past so that they’ll cease being so offended by our wondrous present. In the past, so many suffered under governments that didn’t care to learn about them. Not so ironically those who desired worthy goods and services were reduced to risking their freedom and lives by transacting with black marketeers who actually did care to learn about them, and their needs.