The Price of Free Content

Because of the broad opportunities available through online access, it is tempting to view the internet as a cheap expense. And- in a sense- it is. From it, you can learn skills that range from make-up application to language acquisition, become informed about topics as basic as celebrity or political gossip to as specialized as the anatomic and biological principles of oxygen toxicity in underwater depths[i], watch an unmeasurable amount of pirated video (or for the price of $7.99 a month watch hours of high-production TV, documentaries, and film), listen to the songs of our favorite artists for free on platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud, or Spotify, travel vicariously via vloggers, bloggers, and our Facebook or Instagram connections, contact individuals for free in faraway areas, and the list continues. Essentially, with a computer or mobile device, Wifi service or data plan, more content than you can consume in a lifetime is available to you from your mattress. This, unfortunately, has resulted in an internet-reliant society in which the majority of individuals cannot distance themselves from their online presence, even in their most intimate live moments.

Our combative relationship with the internet is a natural corollary to its novel nature. It takes time to cultivate a stable attitude towards new experiences and items, especially when these experiences and items are exceedingly powerful or disruptive. That fact, combined with the wealth and exploitation that can be achieved through the immaterial and omniscient properties of the internet, makes it so that we don’t have the proper knowledge, training, and regulations in place to cultivate a balanced existence with the way that it incites our base needs and addictive tendencies. But in order to achieve a balanced approach to the endless possibilities open to us via online access, I believe that we should first acknowledge a basic reality: the internet is an expense, both literally and figuratively.

In regards to the literal expense of internet access, you need access to a computer or electronic device (which is often pricey), a data plan, a router, Wi-Fi, and so on. In societies that demand online usage, one must incorporate the expense of purchasing, replacing, or fixing electronics and monthly payments to internet providers into their budget, or risk losing their survival means. This becomes not only a literal expense, but also a figurative expense on time[ii], as the increased base demands make it so that one has to work more to afford the items necessary for being an active member in society.

The fact that we should pay or contribute time and resources for access to information is an argument I can logically understand, as in the majority of instances we have to generate output for input. However, an issue arises when we fail to realize that the free content we view online is not entirely free, as those creating or promoting the content must make an income. Social platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram generate revenue from advertisements. These sites are able to gather information from your computer, using your browser history, recent purchases, and your compiled data footprint to show you ads that entice you to buy. If you are susceptible to this, advertisement revenue might make you pay more for viewing free content than you would with a basic monthly subscription added onto your data plan, electronic expenses, and Wi-Fi rates.

Furthermore, individuals who often label themselves as ‘influencers’ receive their money mainly from paid sponsorships and the amount of traffic they receive on their platforms. As a steady revenue stream is necessary for survival, instead of generating high-quality content, artists, entrepreneurs, and general creatives have to churn out content at a rapid pace (at least two to three times a week) and are incentivized to falsely caption their work with clickbait titles in capitalized letters (‘I ALMOST DIED’ or ‘WE BROKE UP’ or ‘I’VE BEEN HIDING SOMETHING…) so that they can generate a following and – therefore- an adequate paycheck. But this does not only affect the quality of content on social media. Since the internet provides users with an endless amount of free or cheap captivating material, both capturing and keeping a viewer’s interest has become an increasingly arduous task, so news outlets have also had to produce a higher quantity of content at a quicker pace in order to compete, effectively diminishing the quality of even vetted sources.

Now, sensationalism has always sold. Even before the internet, journalists were required to heighten the gravitas of a story via cunning means. However, in a time where thousands of people are posting about social issues on the internet and the news market is oversaturated and more rapid-paced than it has been in recorded history, the need to sensationalize or remark upon an incomplete story before it is already yesterday’s news has become a trivial mark of present–day news coverage. Essentially, the free-to-users-but-beholden-to-advertisers strategy has created a mass of poor quality content where users are forced to sift through countless articles and media to garner a well-rounded perspective on an issue. The news we receive online might not be fake, but it is often (in addition to being sponsored by an organization with an agenda) excessively biased, information is hastily evaluated, and viewpoints are- at least more often than not- incited by emotion rather than impartial intellect.[iii]

But the price we pay for free content runs much steeper than the price we pay in advertisement enticements, poor quality/excessively biased content, and a decrease in individual productivity via wasted time. We also pay for the internet in the way that it invades our privacy and decreases our mental well-being.

Let us first explore the manner in which it inhibits our ability to lead private lives.

In the ‘modern’ age, it is impossible to not have a digital footprint. At any hour, our conversations and movements can be tracked from our cellphones, computers, or cameras in public spaces. Many of us personally sign off on agreements on our cellphone applications that give companies the legal right to access our phone’s location, microphone, camera, photos, and contacts. The popular application WhatsApp, which on July 26, 2017 claimed to have over ‘one-billion daily active users’[iv], is an example of such a company. By clicking YES on the screen when first using the WhatsApp platform, you grant the entity use of you phone’s camera and microphone, allowing them to view or take a picture or video of your location (which includes you) at any time or tap into your audio and record and listen to your ambient surroundings (including your private conversations) at any time, without any prior notice.

In their online Security and Privacy section regarding camera usage, WhatsApp remarks: “WhatsApp has a photo button that allows you to capture photos and videos using your phone’s camera directly. To be able to use this feature, you will need to allow WhatsApp access to your camera when prompted to. Rest assured, WhatsApp will never take a photo or video on your behalf.”[v] Now, being an inconsequential individual in a mass of a billion active users makes it unlikely that an employee from WhatsApp with the right access will target you to spy on. And, in all respects, the average WhatsApp user’s private doings (even if they were caught on camera or video nude, on the toilet, or in a compromising action) should not be as shameful as our society makes them out to be. But- inconsequential or not- the ability to manage your privacy, especially at home, is an important matter to the majority. And those three lines are hardly an assurance to the legally binding contract of granting WhatsApp access into your personal camera, a camera you have in your immediate surroundings nearly every waking and sleeping hour.[vi]

As I briefly touched upon above, the slight possibility of being photographed or filmed in private matters (being naked, showering, going to the bathroom, in sexual acts…) can be painfully embarrassing, but as they are natural, daily activities for many of us it is nothing to feel ashamed about and thus should not be a deterrent in downloading and giving these apps access to your camera and microphone, as using your camera and audio in WhatsApp is an important manner in which we connect with others in a globalized world. And- in any case- you can always click NO when the message appears on your phone after installation or- if you didn’t initially- go into your settings and block their access. However, what makes the modern world so tricky with privacy concerns is that, in order to be an active member of society, it is impossible for us to not have a data footprint compiled of us. As previously mentioned, popular sites like Facebook and Google store your information and sell it to advertisers so that they can target you with specific ads. They can also sell your information to governemtn offiicials, prominent corporations, and even third-parties indirectly associated in such transactions, as was well advertised during the Cambridge Analytica scandal.[vii] And there is really not much of a way around this for the average online user, besides personally limiting internet, cell phone, and social media usage and repeatedly using incognito browsers or certain plug-ins and extensions.

But even if you were to take painstaking measures to not be tracked, you will still face issues with database compiling through government forms, medical data, bank statements, or employment and educational records. In fact, it is impossible to know what these top conglomerates know about us. To put this into perspective, I will disclose a personal account. In 2013, when living in Barcelona, an ATM machine took my bank card but did not return it (in Spain, you have to fully insert your card into the slot). For a month, I was unable to access my funds because I couldn’t correctly answer the privacy questions, which spanned back to an organization I was apparently affiliated with in 2004 (the answer to which I kept getting wrong[viii]) to the city a cousin of mine just bought property in, a cousin I hardly kept in contact with (although was connected with enough to know the answer). It was this experience that shocked me into understanding the manner in which my data, and the data of my family, friends, and acquaintances, is intricately linked and compiled on online databases so that corporations and government agencies can effectively know my personal proclivities, interests, and affairs as well as the personal proclivities, interests, and affairs of those connected to me, however loosely.

Admittedly, due to my current life circumstances, I am not so concerned with privacy issues. But that could also be because I am neither famous nor active on social media, am not well versed in the totality of data breaches, and have not yet experienced any negative side effects of such privacy concerns. But what does make the issue concerning to me is that, despite becoming a hermit and forgoing interaction with the internet and regulated industries, there isn’t much the average individual can do to protect their digitalized information from being sold, viewed, and used by prominent individuals and corporations. The price of being part of a community is that your thoughts, actions, and movements are seen and commented on by others. But in an era where most of our actions are permanently recorded into an online database, and photos and videos are commonly taken of us and subsequently shared online, this aspect of society is messier than ever. And in our ability to both view and post content for free, we must understand that a price we pay for it is the inability to control our privacy and anonymity.

Our lack of privacy in the digital age is an anxious topic for many. And it ties into the last- and perhaps the gravest- price that we pay for cheap and/or free online access: it negatively impacts our emotional state. Along with the immense power of the internet arise issues such as anxiety, addiction, laziness, an inability to focus and plan direction, loneliness, lack of community, and superficial relations. But in order to understand why this has occurred, we must briefly touch upon the base manner in which we relate to online content.

Many of us have a biological need prioritize rest, as it is often in an organism’s best interest to satisfy its needs in the most efficient manner possible. Furthermore, many organisms enjoy and even spend energy in search of entertaining stimulation, especially in moments of prolonged or excessive relaxation. The internet, along with computers, games, and television, assimilate both of these aspects in a brilliant fashion: effortless entertainment. This contributes to the addictive nature of online usage, as well as to the natural inclination we now feel to be lazy and unproductive.

Moreover, rampant anxiety and lack of decisive action is grossly apparent in active online users. The amount of content and possibilities granted to users generates an anxious conundrum that can be coined as the Paradox of Choice,[ix] in which the massive amount of options available hinders both decisive action and the satisfaction with the outcome of a decision. This can be as inconsequential as scrolling through Netflix options for an hour to struggling to choose a career or relationship when perusing job boards or dating profiles. It’s only natural- with the amount of choice and distraction that is cheaply available to us via the internet- that youth today find it increasingly difficult to be satisfied and take action in their careers, relationships, and overall life circumstances.

And in addition to addiction, anxiety, laziness, and indecisiveness, is social isolation, invulnerable connections, superficial interactions, and ‘basic’ inter-and-intrapersonal relationships. In conjunction with relaxing entertainment, we can also communicate with others from our bedrooms solely via the movement of fingers.  Instead of taking the necessary time to develop powerful, meaningful relationships, we browse social media, curate our own accounts to the standards of our acquaintances or successful Instagramers, and stay in contact with the majority of our friends mainly by texting, messaging, or Skyping; which promotes the rise of superficial relationships, both with others and with ourselves, to the point that our self-imposed characterizations only show a faceted image of who we are rather than the multifaceted complexity of our personas. And the most catastrophic result of it all is that we even begin to view ourselves in this light, and thus suffer from a critical lack of self-awareness.

I could write a dissertation regarding the manner in which the internet has contributed to rampant mental instability, however for the purpose of managing a concise, readable blog post I will save that for professionals or for a later time. But I will close off this short essay with the following:

The internet is a surreal invention. Because of it, we are granted with the possibility of becoming increasingly informed and connected across humanity. However, the price we have paid for this is steep. As much as we have gained access to knowledge, we have also diminished our connection to and understanding of ourselves, other humans, animals, and the earth we live upon. Furthermore, in our lack of awareness, we have become masters at retaining cursory, statistical knowledge and in promoting small-scale issues, but have lost our ability to understand the holistic rational behind the situations and circumstances we are struggling to mend. So let’s continue to broaden our understanding of how we interact with such a powerful commodity as the internet, and implement regulations and workshops to help us generate a balance with our online and offline lives. Perhaps then we can use the immense wealth of the internet to our advantage, rather than our disadvantage.


[i] Specific, but something I recently went down a Google/YouTube trap researching.

[ii] (Not to mention the wasted time we spend on social media and sites such as Netflix and Hulu.)

[iii] Incidentally, this blog is also guilty of emotive bias. But I hope that it doesn’t discourage those with opposing viewpoints to express their opinions, as I believe that there is a blurred line regarding right and wrong in personal opinion.

[iv] Refer to: http://fortune.com/2017/07/28/whatsapp-one-billion-daily-users/ and https://blog.whatsapp.com/10000631/Connecting-One-Billion-Users-Every-Day.

[v] Refer to: https://faq.whatsapp.com/en/android/28000004/?category=5245250.

[vi] If you would like to understand more how this works, CBC marketplace did an interesting study where they created an astrology app for testing purposes. Those who signed up for the app gave this company access to their camera and audio. At the end, they showed these individuals photos, videos, and audio that they had secretly (but with consent) took of them. You can watch the video here by clicking on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xx1AUupLn2w.

[vii] Refer to: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-scandal-fallout.html.

[viii] (Or so I believe.)

[ix] The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Ecco, 2004.

FullSizeRender

How often do we take in a beautiful setting via a camera lens rather than the lens of our eye.

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