You Are the Product

'Digital Vertigo' author Andrew Keen lambasts social media's narcissism and full-scale data mining

| September 11, 2013
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Santa Rosa author, speaker and entrepreneur Andrew Keen isn't interested in becoming your Facebook "friend." He's interested in saving your digital soul.

A CNN columnist and host of the TechCrunch chat show Keen On, the British-born transplant brandishes a mordant, simmering wit that blooms to full ire when discussing issues of personal privacy in the age of Web 3.0. In his most recent book, Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, Keen contends that Facebook and its ilk aren't the utopias of interpersonal transparency much ballyhooed by their makers, but rather a kind of exhibitionistic self-enslavement that precludes privacy and solitude, which Keen believes are prerequisite to living fully developed lives.

The notion that "social" media makes us less social isn't entirely a unique one, and Keen is the first to admit it. Thus, to frame his ideas, he interweaves themes from the classic film Vertigo.

"It's a remix of Hitchcock's movie, which is about a man who fell in love with a rich blonde who turned out to be a rather poor brunette who was also a murderess. I fear that with social media, the blonde is, of course, Facebook—we've all fallen in love with it—but just as in Hitchcock's Vertigo, the 'everyman' Jimmy Stewart got 'dressed up' and taken advantage of," he says drolly. "We've all been taken advantage of. We've all been turned into the product."

As a read, Digital Vertigo is a galloping, reference-jammed, personal essay that explores privacy in the age of social and indicts everyone from a 19th-century prison architect to a certain bottle-blonde along the way.

"When you use Facebook, you are the product and they're profiting from you," observes Keen. "If you want to know what Facebook's business model is, look in the mirror. You're paying for Facebook and none of that revenue is coming back to you."

In Digital Vertigo, Keen points to how the culture of "sharing" advocated by Mark Zuckerberg and other social-media titans is tantamount to a wet dream for intelligence agencies. We willingly reveal tons of private data, our present locations, what we had for lunch and other miscellany comprising our lives, that, when aggregated, produces an accurate and predictive portrait of who are, who we know and what (and even who) we're doing.

"We should be paying for our content on the internet," Keen argues, "and until we figure that out—and consumers grow up and understand that they need to pay for online content—they're going to continue to be abused and exploited by data-mining companies like Facebook and Google."


Keen, 53, grew up in North London, studying history at the University of London. After moving to the United States, he earned a master's degree in political science from UC Berkeley. Still keeping a house in Berkeley, he moved to a modest 1939 bungalow in the JC area of Santa Rosa in 2010 to be with his two children. On a recent morning, they fiddle around on iPads in the living room, while Keen, in shorts and a plain black T-shirt, offers tea and discusses his place in Silicon Valley.

"I see my role in the Dawkins-Hitchens tradition," says Keen. "Some of these people take themselves so seriously."

Naturally, Keen is not without his critics. As Sebastopol-based tech publisher and open-source advocate Tim O'Reilly opined in the 2008 documentary The Truth According to Wikipedia, "I think [Keen] was just pure and simple looking for an angle, to create some controversy and sell a book. I don't think there's any substance whatever to his rants."

Keen is aware of his reputation, and in fact seems to relish it. On his Twitter profile he describes himself as "the Anti Christ of Silicon Valley."

As for O'Reilly, "I think he's a little oversensitive," says Keen. "I respect him, politically. And I think O'Reilly is a decent guy. I think he's a good person. But his response to The Cult of the Amateur was such an outrage—that I was only doing it to make money or get attention."

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Comments (3)

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Basically what Keen is saying is that we are sharing too much on social media and paying too high a price without realizing it. I really don't think charging customers like the two leading newspapers are doing is the answer, but Keen makes some valid points.

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Posted by Ann Mullen on 09/11/2013 at 7:06 AM

When the Google sidebar ad thing happened to me for the first time a while back, it was disquieting, disturbing...full of disses basically.

However, as a musician I have never and would never buy into that elitist Ayn Rand rubbish....amatuers and professionals, pshah. Yes, there are narcissistic individuals who think they are smarter than everyone else and love nothing more than to profit on what you give away for free. And yes, we are essentially social animals and we like to share. But I am more confident that we will find new and better ways to deal with this than what Keen recommends.

And for the record, I stopped visiting both the NYtimes and the Pressdemo sites after they started charging. Ever hear of What.CD, Keen? The war over paying for content is already over.

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Posted by David Garland on 09/12/2013 at 3:55 PM

Much research indicates that social media and other mediated communication actually has widened, deepened and varied our interpersonal relationships and communication. Though I would intensely agree we share too much and are often inappropriate, used responsibly and in a focused manner it can make and maintain relationships that might otherwise not be possible. All things in moderation perhaps instead of such a decisive condemnation would be the way to go.

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Posted by Karen Cornwell on 09/15/2013 at 10:34 PM
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