Why Does a Startup Want to Pay Teens for Selfies? So It Can Sell Their Data

Brands, selfies, and privacy issues collide in this new startup.

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May 23 2016, 5:27pm

Image: Flickr/Ellen De Vos

Do you love money, Crest toothpaste, and also your own reflection? Then a new startup appropriately named Pay Your Selfie is just the ticket for your confluence of interests.

The Chicago-based company is built on a simple network of mutually beneficial premises: Young people love money. They also love selfies. Brands love young people, but only because they represent the most valuable consumer demographic. Young people don't necessarily love brands, but if brands give them money for selfies, then perhaps a beautiful relationship can be created. What could go wrong?

And yet, aspects of the startup's business model seem to indicate it disproportionately favors its corporate partners over its users. What's presented as a quid pro quo relationship between millennials and brands is actually a sacrificial offering of user data and privacy to companies who should be paying much more for information they'll use to profit off of them.

Image: Pay Your Selfie

In regards to the startup's claim that people will be appropriately paid out for their selfies, users actually make very little money for their contributions. New tasks can be valued up to $1 each, and users can only cash out once they've submitted enough photos to reach $20. If someone takes five photos per week, that's over a month of selfies needed to get paid. And what that dollar amount doesn't account for are the actual products that people might have purchased to participate in a photo prompt.

Coverage of the young startup has been generally fawning. Adweek claimed the company is useful because it pays you for "simply by doing what you are already doing all time time." In a story by the New York Times, it was suggested the app's ostensibly considerate privacy settings allowed for greater authenticity. And Yahoo Finance wrote that Pay Your Selfie "offers users an opportunity to make money off their consumption habits."

Pay Your Selfie isn't a private platform. In fact, in an interview with the New York Times, an advertising agency head not affiliated with the app referred to it as "automated voyeurism."

According to the company's FAQ, many photo prompts require location services to be turned on in order to validate where people are taking their photos, which allows clients to see where their customers are most saturated, or which stores people are visiting to purchase their products. But for users, sensitive geolocation data can expose them to malicious hackers who have been known to use this type of information to coordinate attacks.

A spokesperson for the company told me that Pay Your Selfie founders are "very much aware of security risks and have several security practices in place."

Advertisers mining and scanning photos for consumer information isn't a new trend. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, platforms such as Pinterest, Flickr, and Instagram are often accessed by marketing researchers through APIs in order to collect behavioral insights for brands—a practice that some security experts consider predatory.

Traditional market research—which participants are usually compensated for—can cost brands hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire. And rightfully so. If a company wants to learn more about us to sell even more products to us, shouldn't it pay accordingly?

When I inquired about how much brands are paying for this information, I was told that Pay Your Selfie customizes campaign costs based on their clients' marketing and insight objectives.

The startup hasn't disclosed a full list of brands it's currently working with, but it did reveal that Procter and Gamble's Crest products, Red Frog, and Chicago's Goose Island Brewery are clients.