Most of us in some way, shape or form love social media. We spend hours scrolling through content, liking and commenting as we go along. All of our actions generate data which is then collected by these social media companies and used, to encourage us to use their platforms more: the so-called addictive factor. The more data a social media platform collects, the larger their profit margins. Not only do we consume content, but we also partake in the creation of content which further keeps users on these platforms.
Let’s take Instagram for example. When you upload a photo of yourself on a beach holiday in Mauritius, it is added to the collective of all posts by Instagram. Now Instagram is going to do its best to get as many people to view, like and comment on your post. This brings two benefits to them. One, it learns about the consumer’s preferences and interests based on what they look at. Two, each notification you receive about that post will trigger a dopamine response making you more likely to click on it and get back on the app. Now you can see from just one post, Instagram is able to keep your followers on the app as well as yourself. And every additional action carried out on Instagram generates a data point on us to be sold to the highest bidder.
Social media sites are also designed to make it as easy as possible for us to post something. By studying how we use the app, UI/UX designers are further improving apps to make creating content a force of habit. These habits slowly meld into our lives to the point we don’t even have to think before carrying out all the actions required to open Facebook on our phones and get onto a Livestream. Now that we have come full circle, we realise the horrible truth, that we are the creators of our own downfall.
“Social media, it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together,” He then goes on to add, “I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” - Bo Burnham's comedy special Make Happy.
So what does this mean for us? Once you understand how social media works, you begin to realise that the platforms only have power because we give it to them. And if we can give them the power, we can also take it back. Sometimes it feels like one person can’t make a difference, but much like democracy, every single person counts. The next time you find yourself appalled by Facebook’s unethical data practices. Just stop and think for a little, how much of an accomplice are you?
Social media is a great tool to connect, discover and learn but failure to understand the machinations behind how social media works can lead us down a vicious cycle of consumption. Sometimes all we need to take control… is to take a step back.
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