Reassessing The Cost of “Free” Media

Last night, as I got off the plane and walked through the F concourse in Minneapolis, I checked Facebook and learned the Bulls beat Miami to take game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. Given the ongoing sadness that is the Twins, there wasn’t anyone to share that news with so I just posted ‘Likes’ to every friend who mentioned the win in their status.

Thinking back to two weeks earlier, at that same concourse in the same situation via the same media, I learned a Seal team had assassinated Osama Bin Laden.  And the realization that the Facebook platform had worked it’s way into my life on a fundamental level hit me like a ton of bricks.

Dennis Ryan, Olson, AdvertisingOr maybe like a ton of impressions.  According to comScore’s Ad Metrix, Facebook delivered nearly one third of the 1.1 trillion display ads on America’s internet during Q1 2011, leading all online publishers.  By any measure, that’s a dominating advertising platform and it speaks to the utility and fun of this ‘free’ opt-in medium. But Facebook’s ‘free’ differs significantly from television’s.

I first became aware of the ‘cost’ of free media in the early 70’s when my Dad explained that the reason I had to go to Richie Tanguay’s house to watch Ultraman was that they had this thing called ‘cable.’ They paid to watch TV, which allowed them to watch some channels that didn’t even have any commercials at all. Ours was free because ours had commercials.

But Facebook’s free contract with users runs far deeper than the flood of display ads.  Facebook owns yottabytes of personal data on all of us: where we live, what we like, who we follow, even the very photos we post for our friends. From this perspective, the ongoing farce that is their nonstop series of security lapses begins to look less like the missteps of some crazy overwhelmed kids trying to keep up and more like brazenly calculating moves by a cadre of opportunists with a generational disregard for any limits of access. Or privacy.

Which is a whole new kind of free. Not better, but decidedly new.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson


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