You’re the Product: A Logic Lesson

It’s the internet’s favorite refrain:

If You’re Not Paying for It, You’re the Product

The latest person to repeat it: Andrew Sullivan, who is now asking for $20/year for his blog. Although he never quite says this explicitly, the insinuation seems to be that if you pay for his blog, then you won’t be the product. Sully is probably not the only one who thinks this.

Unfortunately for Sully, logic disagrees with him. Yes, it logically follows that you’re the product for things you don’t pay for, like Facebook and Twitter. But it does not logically follow that you’re not the product for things you do pay for, like Sully’s blog.

The fallacy that Sully commits is called denying the antecedent. As Wikipedia, everyone’s go-to logician, says:

One way to demonstrate the invalidity of this argument form is with a counterexample with true premises but an obviously false conclusion. For example:

  • If Queen Elizabeth is an American citizen, then she is a human being.
  • Queen Elizabeth is not an American citizen.
  • Therefore, Queen Elizabeth is not a human being.

That argument is obviously bad, but arguments of the same form can sometimes seem superficially convincing.

As the Wason selection task shows, we human beings are not so great at conditional reasoning. We are prone to making logical mistakes like denying the antecedent. It’s perhaps not too surprising that we make this mistake when we talk about business models for blogging or whatever. But it’s time to stop, for logic’s sake.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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