It’s a classic idea in both Psychology and Economics that when things get cheaper or easier to do they get done more often. While this is an idea sculpted out of little more than common sense, it turns out to be a profound truth with a great degree of explanatory power. In fact, it can help us understand much of our obsession with the Internet in general and certain technology products in particular.
Most people think of costs in purely monetary terms. However, money is only one type of cost. We also pay for things with our time, effort (both mental and physical), dignity, and so on.
The Internet has been a profound force in our lives partly because it has allowed us to do many of the things we did before but in far less time and for far less money. For example, millions of us have been avid newspaper readers for decades and have been used to paying a certain fee for our news. However, with the advent of the web, we were suddenly able to receive the daily paper for free – without even having to leave the comfort of our homes (or even our beds). Suddenly, a product that traditionally required us to sacrifice a modicum of time, money, and physical effort to acquire required no sacrifice at all. It was the closest thing that many of us had seen to a free lunch. Of course, the long run consequences would turn out to carry a huge cost.*
Social products like Facebook have been similar. Facebook, for example, has allowed us to keep in touch with our friends and acquaintances in much less time, and for far less money, than before. While we have traditionally had to take time out of our busy schedules, not to mention gas or transit money, to go visit our friends, today we can converse, text, and share photos with them while we endure our daily commutes. The gas or telephone money that we used to pay to connect with our friends? Well, it’s still paid in the form of a data or Internet plan, but we don’t take this into account when texting our friends or uploading photos. The payment is too far removed in time for us to make a true association between the two.
Because the time and effort cost of socializing has decreased with Facebook, we spend a lot more of our daily time engaging in this activity. It’s so common to see people hunched over their phones even while walking down the street. A quick glance at what they’re doing will reveal Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, or a variety of other communication apps. Once again, the cheaper a behavior becomes, the more it’s done.
But as the outrage at Facebook’s privacy policies has shown over the years, we pay in other ways. Our information is used for ad targeting and a variety of other purposes. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just a different kind of cost, one that people are more than willing to pay, as Facebook usage numbers indicate. What percentage of Facebook's user population would leave if they had to pay five dollars a year? It’s hard to say, but the number would likely be substantial. Of course, we’re mainly talking about short term costs here. In the long term, it’s likely that we’ll pay in other ways for the increase in digital communication versus in-person communication. Perhaps certain social skills or in-person interpersonal communication abilities will suffer. We can only speculate what the price will be. But these costs will likely be offset by the advantages of continuous messaging and communication on these platforms.
We love cheap things. We can’t get enough of free stuff. We consume it voraciously. However, it’s hard to realize that bills come in many different forms, and at the end of many great meals our eyes may pop at the sight of the check. This is the nature of life, and with the rise of “free” internet services we’re in a new era of delayed costs, one that will come as a surprise to many of us.
* For instance, The New York Times cut 100 newsroom jobs this week (link here).