How You’re Actually Paying for Those “Free” Apps and Online Services

I’ll admit it: I love Gmail and Google Drive, I check my LinkedIn app daily, I’ve even come to appreciate Twitter, and man does my wife love Instagram. These tools can be extremely useful, are well designed, and offer fantastic user experiences. Funny thing is, I doubt either of us would pay even a nominal fee to continue using any of them.

With the exception of the the ads on Twitter and Gmail — which I block through third party plugins — each of these platforms remain almost completely ad-free. You know these companies are making money, but have you considered how?

150 Pieces of Tweet Metadata
Every tweet contains 150 pieces of metadata

Though no money is changing hands, you’re still “paying” for the use of these great tools. Every GChat message you send, every update to your LInkedIn profile, and every picture you post to Instagram produces dozens of pieces of information about you as a person, employee, or consumer. As the Wall Street Journal recently explored, every single tweet produces 150 single pieces of metadata.

Yes, this data goes toward the creation of those ads on websites that mysteriously show the same running shoes you viewed on Amazon last week. This data is also used to improve the tools to be more user friendly. But there’s a bit more to it than that.

Based on your activity, some companies also start to develop a profile of you as a person including things like your hobbies, marital status, and approximate income, which they then sell to partners and marketers. There’s so much data packed into each tweet that an entire industry has popped up with the sole purpose of analyzing this data. Many of these companies are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for access for unstructured Twitter data.

I still use Gmail and Google Drive, still check LinkedIn every day, still follow my local pubs on Twitter, and my wife still loves Instagram, but we also put a little more thought into the things for which we use these tools and what we choose to share.

After all, if someone wants this kind of data from me, they can pay me for it.


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