By Diana Jumaili and Laura Brongers
Most of us pick up the phone several times a day to scroll here and there. Using social media is a private (yet not private at all) moment where you can take part of what friends, strangers, artists and even politicians share for the whole world to see. It makes us feel more connected with the people around us and the rest of the world. However, in return, we have to put up with advertisements in between every other post. Sometimes these advertisements are presented as a separate type of content that interrupts whatever amuses us, and the same amount of advertisement is masked in, say, Kim Kardashian’s snapchat where the video is about her beauty routine in which she coincidently only uses products of her own beauty brand (which is called KKW, in case you already fell for this add and got curious). Although it feels like interruptions or by-products of social media, advertisement is actually the main reason as to why you can’t help yourself from picking up your phone. The fact that companies seek growth by using advertisements is not something new. You probably think that you are immune to these advertisements and that you can just ignore them by not paying attention to it, like everyone else does. But if that would be the case, then why are ads still thriving?
The personalized feed
As many of us know by now; if you like football and fashion, then your feed will most likely be filled with content containing sports and clothes in the form of ads, news posts and other suggested content. The idea of it is that the more time you spend on social media platforms, the more advertisement can be exposed to you – making it more likely for you to buy things. In turn, the more attention you devote to social media, the more of your behaviour can be analyzed in the purpose of showing you content that makes sure you are pleased with what you see and you don’t put your phone down just yet. Advertisers and app-developers devote a great amount of effort to keep you scrolling and hopefully buy their products at some point.
By personalizing your feed, it’s not only tasty foods or cute animals that become more frequent. It is also everything else that makes up who you are. Your political opinions, religious beliefs and sexual preferences are also being pinpointed along with your geographic position, age and even your relationship status. With time, a virtual version of you exists within the huge data collection that these platforms possess. This data collection is the biggest nightmare of your privacy, since laws regulating this are lacking behind. Together with Artificial Intelligence (AI), profit-seekers can take a step further and predict your behaviour, exploiting the future by showing you the right content at the right time. Eventually, one has to deal with questions like freedom and free will – can we really trust our own impulses when these social media mechanisms are becoming more and more clever? The short answer is no. But by becoming more aware and stop using social media, you take back control.
Throughout history, technology has ever so often caused unintended consequences that were simply impossible to predict, but nevertheless had a serious negative impact. Social media are perhaps one of the greatest examples of this. While the intention of these algorithms has been to make money, something far more profound has been messed with.
Although social media have given us the opportunity to explore enormous amounts of news sources and other content, personalized feeds are isolating the users. Instead of exploring, many people are stuck in old habits and will not seek to challenge themselves to deal with people who think differently. And it’s not like they can help it, the algorithms narrow the users’ feeds into their own preferences – and biases. The social media algorithms are enhancing and showing you a part of the world that you are most likely to agree with. What is shown to you is confirming and slowly reinforcing your perspective, such as your political opinions, religious beliefs and sexual preferences. More generally, the polarization causes people to distance themselves emotionally from non-like-minded people; showing less empathy, more discrimination, more radicalization and, for the angry enough, causing of public violence.
Even the most ignorant can see the dangers in the seemingly good hope of people connecting on a massive scale. Today, we can see that this has impacted our wellbeing and society beyond the individual level. People can on the one hand organize themselves and through activism drive for change: #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are both examples of online activism thanks to social media. On the other hand, right wing extremists are gaining trust over democratic governments due to strategic spreading of desinformation, but also the stock market is taking a hit as people with no authority can come together and manipulate the value of certain stocks. When desinformation is taken into the calculation, things are doomed to escalate into events like the storming of the white house or GameStop stocks suddenly rising for no good reason.
But who do we blame for this? The technology of social media is indeed a problem but the robots filtering what we see is not the only cause. Nor is it the advertisers that ultimately are just trying to keep up with our lifestyle. The silencing of former U.S. president, Donald Trump, reminds us that the humans running the companies behind our most popular social media have the final say on what does and does not appear.
Your personal well-being
Social media is fun, social and triggers your dopamine but it’s nonetheless time-consuming. Too much of drugs can lead to depression, isolation and decreased self-control. Surprisingly, these are not unlike the side-effects found in social media users. People tend to experience a deterioration of their mental health such as anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness. By now you might be thinking ‘That’s not me, I’m not addicted’ and that might be true, but it might also be that you haven’t objectively analyzed your own social media use and are thus in denial. Most of the social media users do not feel addicted because there are not many scenarios where you cannot use social media for days. Social media is very easy to access and rather time-consuming, so the possible side-effects are not too far away. The design of for example Instagram and Facebook allows you to scroll through your feed without any cues to let you know how much you have consumed so far. This leads you to waste more time than intended. By the end of the day, hours may have been taken from you where you didn’t accomplish… anything, really. Even the most innocent social media usage can cause negative effects on well-being. Don’t we all get triggered by terrible things happening here, or on the other side of the world? Constantly interrupting whatever we’re doing to stop and scroll, causing our attention to drop? Buy things that we don’t really need because someone or something made us think that we do need it? Ask yourself, to what point is your social media usage a matter of socializing and not a continuing self-destruction through cheap entertainment?
Dr. Cal Newport, a professor of Computer Science, has never used social media in his life. But he perfectly describes some skeptical but reprehensible common objections to quitting social media use. Starting with the objection that not using social media is that social media might be necessary to present your (artistic) work and enlarge professional success. But dr. Newport describes that products and services will be most successful if they are rare and valuable, regardless of the amount of attention they get on social media. Additionally, there are many other ways to present products and services, so competition doesn’t have to arise when not using social media. When looking at professional success, dr. Newport reminds us again of the goals of social media and the design of social media; to make the user spend as much time with the medium as possible. This is rather destructive for your professional success. The (short) interruptions of social media while working suppress the workflow and ability to concentrate for longer periods of time, resulting in decreased efficiency and productivity.
The second common objection is ‘Social media is one of the fundamental technologies of the 21st century and to reject social media would be an extreme act. Not using social media would result in missing out on these constantly developing technologies.’ advocates for this point would say that in todays’ society it is important to keep up with technology. While it’s true that social media indeed does contain progressive technologies, the fact is that social media is an entertainment product and not intended for the user to educate themselves on the mechanisms behind it.
How social media can change
At the heart of it all, it is still a technology problem we are facing. The algorithms dictate what is shown on our feeds and they operate without transparency. Most of the time we are not even aware of this mechanism, allowing ourselves to be manipulated into sharing, buying or simply wasting our time. But, if social media were to change then maybe we could start using social media again.
One possible solution to the polarization problem is to eliminate the ‘successful’ concept of personalized feeds even though it generates a lot of money – because it causes a lot of trouble too for the people who aren’t getting any of that money. Yes, going back to chronological feeds so that no advertiser, marketer or political agenda can manipulate the content of our feed. Just like when you are in the supermarket, you see exactly the same products as all other clients do. This way, we can really choose the sources of information that we want and minimize desinformation spoon-fed to us. However, this solution is very unlikely as no company-owner would want to go back to having no control over who interacts with their brand and risking no return on their investment of advertising.
One other possible solution, and one that we are already seeing, is tweaking the algorithms so that they promote reliable news sources over questionable ones. Reliable sources could be governmental information, Wikipedia or the World Health Organization. Doing this, will naturally lead to less engagement as factual information is less sensational. Regardless of this entertainment killing effect, such solutions have indeed been implemented by Facebook and Instagram in very small amounts. The results of changing the recommendation system into deprioritizing what the algorithms classify as potential desinformation, showed that trusted news-sources had a boost in trust from social media users.
Boycott social media – use private networks instead
Until the companies running social media take responsibility and try to promote people over products, they are not entitled to the power over you. Keeping in touch with your friends and family can be done through applications like WhatsApp and Telegram or regular text-messaging and phone calling. With private networks, algorithms have zero influence on your screen-time, consumer behaviour or how you socialize. And if you are worried about not keeping up to date with global events, then remember that news doesn’t have to reach you through your friends’ stories. Actively seeking news from reliable and multiple sources makes you less dependent on the selective mechanisms that are on social media. By doing so, you enable yourself to bring more diversity into your daily news-sources and to think more critically. Additionally, you can take back the control over your privacy and the way you spend your time.
In this article, we have argued that target advertising is a useful tool for profit-seeking companies, but unfortunately influences negatively on the individual and the society. To avoid such, we have suggested solutions like reshaping the algorithms behind the personalized feeds or getting rid of them altogether. But the most effective solution is at the hands of yourself – stopping with social media and taking back control of your mind and privacy. Stopping with social media may sound extreme. But the truth is, only good can come out of it. Lightening your pockets and contributing to consumer society is bad enough. But worse, social media is manipulating you into spending something that is perhaps the most valuable of all: your time and integrity. Stop using social media or social media will continue to use you.