The Climate Change of our Culture
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Just within the last decade, technology has quickly begun to dominate our world. What began as a tool to communicate with one another has developed into something with unintended consequences far greater than anyone could have predicted. Targeted advertising has been elevated to an entirely new level with the relatively recent invention of the smartphone. Social media platforms collect massive amounts of user data with individual surveillance. Most people associate the term data with personal information--for instance, your name, location, or email. However, social media platforms constantly record data through your usage without your consent or knowledge. Platforms track what you click on, how long and how often you view something, and where you go. Social media platforms carefully use collected data to predict your behavior and optimize the success of advertisers.
Have you ever thought about how apps like Instagram and Snapchat profit? Though these apps are free to download, they profit off of your use of the platform. There is a saying that goes, “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.” The real customers of social media platforms are advertisers. By tracking your behavior, companies can predict which advertisements will appeal to you, which increases their income. According to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, they “can predict where you are going to go, what kinds of videos will keep you watching, and even what kinds of emotions will tend to trigger you.” Businesses pay for a guarantee that advertisements will be successful. Social media platforms “sell certainty” and “in order to be successful in that business, you need to have great predictions” says, former Harvard Business School professor, Shoshana Zuboff. Therefore, mass data collecting is crucial to enhance these predictions.
Social media platforms have been engineered to specifically target human weakness through manipulation and addiction. People have developed the unconscious habit of constantly checking their phone to see what is on their feed or their recommended videos. Photo tagging also secures the user’s attention. If you are notified that someone has tagged you in a photo or video, of course you are going to click on it. “It’s not something that you can just decide to ignore. This is a deep seated human personality that they're tapping into” says former Twitter executive Jeff Seibert. A 5,000 person study from the American Journal of Epidemiology found that higher social media usage is directly related to self-reported decreases in mental health, physical health, and life satisfaction. The amount of views, likes, and types of comments someone receives online heavily influences their overall mood and well being. Furthermore, social media can impede on a family’s ability to connect with one another and engage in lively conversation.
Ultimately, companies are competing for your attention. Many people, unaware of social media’s greedy agenda, view social media as a tool to connect with friends and family. The features of social media platforms, however, are specifically designed to optimize the amount of time users spend staring at the screen, which increases their opportunity to make money. Teams of engineers specifically have the job of hacking your psychology with the goal of getting more online traffic, user signups, and engagement. This field of study is referred to as “growth hacking”. One of the most effective growth tactics, pioneered by Facebook, is experimenting with small feature changes and testing them on the users. According to former Facebook Operations Manager Sandy Parakilas, “over time, by running these constant experiments you develop the optimal way to get users to do what you want them to do. It’s manipulation”.
*The general information is this article, along with the direct quotes, are from the documentary, The Social Dilemma. Check it out on Netflix to learn more!