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Facebook was never ‘free’: Sorry

Facebook was never ‘free’: Sorry

You’ve likely spent a thousand hours or more on Facebook over the past decade. Did you think that the energy-sucking servers holding your images and hosting the groups dedicated to your high-school class and your neighborhood ran on good wishes?

Did you think the company that has allowed you to consume news and opinion at no cost whatsoever to you was doing so out of the goodness of its collective heart?

Did you think . . . it was free?

Did you really not know that your agreement with Facebook was that Mark Zuckerberg would provide you with hours a day of enjoyment in exchange for your individual information?

There isn’t an adult in this country who shouldn’t know better than to screech in anguish at the supposed horrifying discovery that his or her “personal data” have been collected by social-media networks and others to earn the dough necessary to run these networks and make huge profits besides.

Guess how long we’ve lived in a world in which media have been provided to us without charge because networks earned their keep selling the fact of our presence to advertisers? The first radio station to broadcast over the airwaves transmitted news about the 1920 presidential elections in Pittsburgh. That was 97 years ago, people.

From radio to broadcast TV to the Internet, the model has been the same. You sell yourself — your ears, your eyeballs, your attention — and get entertainment in exchange. The only expenses you incur are for the device that entertains you and (since the advent of cable) the wires that arrive into your house to provide you with unalloyed access to the entertainment.

This is true even in the case of entertainment you pay for, like this newspaper or the magazine I edit. They cost a lot less than they would otherwise because you’re selling yourself to advertisers when you purchase and read them.

When you watch a car commercial, you’re selling yourself. When you listen to a radio ad about a cancer patient getting healed at a hospital, you’re selling yourself. When you check out the classifieds in The Post, you’re selling yourself.

The reason Facebook makes as much money as it does is only in component because it has so much data. It’s largely because of the promise it makes to advertisers — the promise that can separate the wheat from the chaff and serve up targeted content that will have particular meaning to particular audiences.

For example: I keep kosher. Showing me a cheeseburger is a waste of McDonald’s ad money because I’m not going to eat one. If my personal data tell Facebook about my dietary restrictions, it can assist McDonald’s not waste its ad money on me or people like me. And it can maybe tell me about an offering at the local kosher supermarket if that supermarket uses Facebook to look for targeted customers.

But it can only do that by knowing things about me.

It’s possible you didn’t know. It’s possible you came to believe that Facebook was like oxygen — something you just breathed in because it was there for you to breathe in.

Or that you did pay for it because you bought your computer or your mobile device and have to pay for your home Wi-Fi or cellular data. Those are expensive! Somehow Facebook just arrives with them, you thought — maybe.

The science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said it best: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Everything has a cost. If you forgot that, or refused to see it in your relationship with Facebook, or believe any of these things, sorry, you are a fool. So the politicians and pundits who are working to soak your outrage for their own ideological purposes are gulling you. But of course you knew.

You just didn’t care . . . until you cared. Until, that is, you decided this was a helpful way of explaining away the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

You’re so invested in the idea that Trump stole the election you are willing to trust anything other than that your candidate lost because she made a lousy argument and ran a lousy campaign and didn’t know how to run a race that would put her over the top in the Electoral College — which is how you prevail in a presidential election and has been for 220-plus years.

The rage and anger against Facebook over the past week provide just the latest examples of the self-infantilization and flight from responsibility on the part of the American people and the refusal of Trump haters and American liberals to accept the results of 2016.

Honestly, it’s time to stop being fools and start owning up to our role in all this.

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