Online businesses were originally measured by how much they sold. Makes sense, right? That’s how economics is taught. But today, the largest online companies depend on an “economy of likes” to make money, says media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. Valuations for companies like Facebook depend largely on their user base, he says, rather than their actual profits. An interesting case in point is Jay-Z’s partnership with Samsung.
When the technology company gave away one million copies of the rapper’s album Magna Carta Holy Grail on users’ phones, paying Jay-Z $5 million, they weren’t really purchasing his music — they were purchasing this fan base (and installing spyware on their phones via the album download). The attraction of this business model to investors is that the ability to measure consumer behavior directly, via spyware or “likes,” is meant to replace traditional modes of advertising. But when everyone is an advertising company, asks Rushkoff, what happens to the real economy?
Indeed companies who are extracting huge profits from society without giving us something tangible in return, like razorblades or bananas, are harming the real economy. Business should benefit society directly, not indirectly, as when billionaires donate their absurd wealth to our schools. That’s a robber baron society. We just want a society.