The Subtle Economics of Facebook, Google, Firefox, and Chrome

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How are you reading this article, right now?

Are you gazing at us through the economy of a Chrome browser, waiting for the minute it suddenly tells you that the Shockwave Flash plugin has crashed, or are you navigating through Safari and its annoyingly non-intuitive tab system? (I bet that one of the first three comments will explain how to hotkey a new tab in Safari, which I could look up myself, but I haven’t yet cared enough to care.)

And did you reach us through The Billfold’s Facebook page as it posted this article into your News Feed, or did you catch it when I linked to the post on Twitter, or do you refresh The Billfold every hour in anticipation of our publication schedule?

Believe it or not, all of this makes a difference to your workflow and, potentially, to your financial prospects.

The Atlantic has two new stories out that examine how slight differences in our online browsing habits affect our lives. We’ll start with “Facebook, Google, and the Economies of Time.”

Did you ever consider—and I, honestly, never considered this—that the goal of Google Dot Com is to get you off the website as fast as possible, and the goal of Facebook Dot Com is to keep you on the website as long as possible? As The Atlantic writes:

Google has used its time-saving, bottom-of-funnel advantage to become, by a wide margin, the richest company in mobile advertising. Now it controls 37 percent of the small-screen ad market, a lead that is padded with the company’s dominance in search advertising. If you remove search and focus exclusively on display ads (banners and video, but not search), it’s Facebook that controls more than a third of the market. That’s three times more than Google’s share, five times more than Twitter, and seven times Apple or Pandora.

Facebook, too, is an engine of consumer surplus, but it earns its prodigious income by monetizing time spent, rather than time saved.

This explains in part why we sometimes feel a little disgusted and disappointed with ourselves after spending “too much time” on Facebook. I honestly think the right word is ashamed. Yes, some of that shame has to do with FOMO, or comparing our insides to other people’s outsides, or stuff like that—but it also has to do with the subconscious thought that we have traded our valuable, productive time to a site that wants nothing more than to capture our valuable, productive time. We could have done anything in the world and we defaulted to what Facebook wanted to do.

Which brings us to Chrome and Firefox, and why I deliberately used the word “defaulted” in the previous paragraph. The other Atlantic story, “People Who Use Firefox or Chrome Are Better Employees,” explains that, well, people who use Firefox and Chrome are better employees:

Cornerstone’s researchers found that people who took the test on a non-default browser, such as Firefox or Chrome, ended up staying at their jobs about 15 percent longer than those who stuck with Safari or Internet Explorer. They performed better on the job as well. (These statistics were roughly the same for both Mac and PC users.)

That’d be Cornerstone OnDemand, one of the many companies that provides recruitment tools and personality tests to workplaces. These companies of course track the metadata along with the data, and so they are likely to know whether you use Chrome or Safari, and whether you hotkey a new Safari tab or fumble around trying to remember whether to aim your cursor towards the right or the left.

The Atlantic story references a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Maddest Men of All,” where Cornerstone chief analytics officer Michael Housman tells Freakonomics’ Stephen J. Dubner why Chrome and Firefox users might be more productive employees:

HOUSMAN: So what internet browser do you use, Stephen?

DUBNER: I hate them all, and I use Firefox.

HOUSMAN: Okay, great, so good news for you, because we have found that Chrome and Firefox users are the best employees. They perform better on virtually every metric and stay longer.

DUBNER: Now, is there any causal relationship that you can even think about there or no?

HOUSMAN: We don’t know where the causality is. I don’t think that finding means that our clients should immediately force all their employees to install Firefox or Chrome on their computers.

DUBNER: (Laughs).

HOUSMAN: That’s not where we want to go with it. But my personal view is that I think that the fact that you took the time to install Firefox on your computer shows us something about you. It shows that you’re someone who is an informed consumer. It shows us that you care about your productivity. And you’ve made an active choice to do something that wasn’t default, that wasn’t handed to you.

And we’re back to the idea of the default again, and that improving your life economically—whether in the economy of the workplace or in the economy of how you spend your day—might have to do with deliberately going against the default. (Up to, and including, knowing when to use hotkeys.)

What do you think? Have you seen economic advantages when you go against the “online default,” whether it’s installing Firefox or turning off the sound on your Facebook notifications? Have you improved your workflow, impressed your boss, felt better about your life, bought less stuff, got your promotion, or whatever other metric you want to measure? Does the act of making a choice, in and of itself, provide a subtle economic advantage?

Photo credit: Anthony Quintano

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