Is anything in life totally free?

When you think about it, you might suspect that social networks like  Facebook or LinkedIn provide a discernible value and you shouldn't have to pay a dime for them.

You can connect with loved ones.

You can browse baby pictures.

You can share links to articles like this one.

Yet, before you wander too far away from reality, remember that we are all using these services under our own free will, and we know Facebook makes money by serving us ads. We all know these ads are highly customized to our own tastes and preferences. This is not an excuse for bad behavior. It doesn't mean Facebook isn't to blame for recent data leaks. And, in fact, the company has proven again and again that they have been reckless with our personal data. The question is: How much do you care?

Recently, Sheryl Sandberg spoke about how an ad-free version of Facebook is not practical, and that if the company removed all advertising, they would have to start charging us. Now, you may miss the irony there. I'm not sure the services they provide are actually worth a monthly fee, and even if we are hopelessly hooked on any given social network, we might quickly unhook if we have to pay to use the platform. 

Yet, she is 100% accurate about how this all works. And, it should not surprise us. Speaking to Today, she noted: "We don't have an opt-out at the highest level. That would be a paid product." (In case you are wondering, that's been true since day one.)

Ad-supported services make no lofty or moralistic claims; they don't hide their true intentions. Ads are all over Facebook, on the side of you feed, in your feed, sometimes all around your feed. It's a strange notion to think that Facebook has created this vast social experiment for the betterment of mankind and not to sell ads to the highest bidder.

I happen to think Facebook's total domination is a good thing. The service works, it provides amazing features. The best social network wins. Case closed.

I also happen to think exploiting our data is totally different from using it to serve us ads. My problem with those who are foaming at the mouth about selling ads is that the we'd have to start suspecting the entire advertising model on most popular sites and services, starting with Facebook and Google. Yet, exploiting the data--compromising personal information, using it for political gain, and releasing it into the wild--are all serious problems. Advertising is an accepted practice; data leaks reveal a serious recklessness.

What Sandberg is hinting at is the stark contrast between companies like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, almost every app, free-to-play games like Fortnite, and actual paid services. We've accepted the digital economy of free services in exchange for ads. Did we really think an entirely free service is available because someone just likes us?

Apple and Microsoft, on the other hand, charge you to breathe their air. An adapter to connect your $2,000 laptop to an external display costs $69. Are you kidding me? That's worse than charging $4 for a stale and crusty apple fritter at Starbucks. Microsoft does offer a few free apps, but if you want any assurance about stability or security, start handing over your cash for expensive, well-monitored services like Exchange. These companies are not serving you ads (in most cases) in order to use their products.

To be clear, this is not in any way intended to defend Facebook. Misusing your data is always wrong, and they should be held accountable. It's just that Sandberg is perfectly accurate in how she describes the trade-off between user data and ads.

Which, in the end, brings us to Google.

Guess what? No company on the planet is serving you more ads in more corners of the Web than the search giant. I use Gmail, Google Cal, Google Docs, and about six other Google apps on a daily basis. I know they show me an endless barrage of ads. The term "search engine optimization" basically means "getting on Google" and staying there. It's amazing to me that there's such an outcry about ad-supported services and the inherent risks of letting a social network store and profit from our user data.

Exploit the data? No way.

Supported by ads? We've been walking down that road for decades.

While we might not be willing to pay for the most popular service ever, we're already accepted how Facebook operates. Now it's time to decide how much we care.