In Don Norman’s talk at dConstruct, he said something that I’ve been saying for a long time:
“They have lots of people, lots of servers, they have Android, they have Google Docs, they just bought Motorola. Most people would say ‘we’re the users, and the product is advertising’,” he said. “But in fact the advertisers are the users and you are the product.”
Norman is almost right, although he’s phrasing it wrong. Google’s customers (not users – there is a difference) are advertisers: they are the people who pay. What Google is selling is you, or rather your attention. The more it can make its ads relevant to you, by placing them in the right context at the right time, the more likely you are to click on them – and the click is the only measure of your attention that matters.
John Gruber, and many others, seem to see this as either a revelation or something shockingly bad – hence John’s snarky retort that “the truth has an anti-Google bias”. But “the truth” is that John does exactly the same thing. Like virtually every online publisher, it’s advertisers who pay his bills – so, in truth, his “customers” too are advertisers.
The idea that Google’s customers are advertisers, and what it’s selling is you (or rather: your attention) is no big deal. Every site, every publication, which carries ads is “guilty” of exactly the same thing.
What John sells isn’t content, but us, the readers, our eyeballs, our attention. Advertisers on Daring Fireball know that you, the reader, are a Mac nut, which in turn means they can pin down a lot of broad demographics because “Mac nuts” fall into quite a distinct pot. To his advertisers, John may (or may not) also disclose other aggregated information – breakdown of geographic location, any survey data he’s collected on more precise demographics, and so on.
Google is just more precise about it (at least in theory) because it knows more about us as individuals than any single site or publication can ever manage. That “individual” data isn’t usually tied to us as unique individuals, because Google doesn’t (yet) have that level of granularity. But the different is one of precision, not who and what is being sold. For Daring Fireball – and for Technovia, and Macworld, and every other site which carries ads – the customer is the advertiser, and what’s being sold is the reader’s attention.