Social Media Sells (Us) Out
“Advertisers are the customers; we’re the thing being sold.” Aza Raskin — The Social Dilemma 2020
There is no doubt that social media has transformed almost every part of our modern-day lives. How we talk, how we work, how we organize, plan, and even buy food. In the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, we explore this concept of the ever-consuming conundrum of social media and its impact on every aspect of the human race.
When social media was created, it was intended to change how we connect and communicate. However, combined with technology innovations revolutionizing the industry every year since the early 2000s and programmers and engineers trying to navigate a new business, the result is an interconnected machine that we have taught to outsmart us two decades later. These companies that kickstarted the social media future like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace had to find ways to keep their product alive, which meant they needed to find a way to make it profitable. As Jaron Lanier states in the documentary, “the change in our behaviors has become the product.” We are not the ones paying for the product, the advertisers are, and therefore we have become the product.
This was the bit that hit me.
While it may seem like an obvious statement, it can really change one’s perspective on how the business platforms are created and perpetuated overtime to keep the machine running. I believe as though I have been fairly self-aware when it comes to social media and controlling my intake and thoughts associated with what I see and therefore believe. This little tidbit has reinforced my hesitations and changed my perspective when I look at my feeds, settings, and why I receive the content I do at the times I do. However, this was not the case ten or so years ago.
When I was younger, I was much more sensitive to social media and what I thought society’s expectations were. I grew up walking on my toes and playing soccer for about eight years of my young life. This, in addition to genetics, resulted in me having strong, muscular legs, which many, including myself, dawned “thunder thighs.” To me, it was noticeable in every picture, and I thought it was the only thing people noticed about me. I was not only comparing myself to models or strangers I saw on social media, but girls at my school pictures. People I knew, my family and friends. I would stare at their images for hours, trying to figure out what made me the outlier and wondering how I could change it. Social media was completely attributed to my lack of self-confidence and worth. It was there for me to stare at whenever I wanted, and I assumed everyone else was staring back at me.
The Social Dilemma brings up this distortion and perception of reality and how it has altered and severely affected young teenagers. I was a part of that percentage that experience depression, anxiety, and thoughts of self-harm and suicide. These are very real issues that a fake online world has created by selling our attention to these advertisers to keep us intrigued. The way in which Lanier and other computer scientists, former social media platform executives, and engineers stated this in the film, was another step in helping the healing process that social media has left on me. These moments of realization are crucial for helping those like me understand they became victims of these business models and are a by-product of our own searches and habits.
This being said, I am someone who has come out the other side of these deep, dark, mind-altering social media dives and am now much more aware of my use of social media.
I believe at first, I started to distance myself from social media when I began to see the algorithms change towards showing users what the platforms think we want to see versus chronological order. This was the first sign that I thought, “I know what I want; why would this app think it is smarter than me?” With a chronological order, I could get off at 11 pm the previous night and resume scrolling through my apps the next day till I hit that previous stopping point and knew I hadn’t missed anything. With a system that predicted what it thought I would like or what was getting the most engagement, I started to lose interest and slowly gave up trying to sift through all the posts that kept appearing.
It has now gotten to a point where I have disconnected (unplugged), maybe a little too much. Trying to keep up with all that social media tries to offer me has become too overwhelming. It has resulted in me going months, even years, without talking to people, and I do not think twice about it. Fortunately, I have found friends that understand this and respect that it is just how I communicate. It does not mean I love my family or friends any less, but thanks to ADHD and object permanence, when something is not on my mind, then it won’t happen. This usually results in me not being able to communicate with people who I do not see every day because I am not going on social media to see anything to remind me of them. I don’t have that need or want to constantly refresh my feeds to see what has changed. It is usually the opposite. Someone will mention something about a life change that happened months or years ago, and I am out of the loop because I didn’t see it posted on social media.
However, my one social media vice that I believe keeps me connected to social media is TikTok. I can, and do, scroll for literally hours. It is the way my executive dysfunction manifests and traps itself for when I am not at work and most likely supposed to be working on other tasks like cleaning or homework. Tim Kendall, former President of Pinterest, describes his own addiction to Pinterest in the same format in the documentary. Even though he was at home with his wife and children, who wanted and needed his attention, he couldn’t get off the application. I am aware that I have other, quite pressing responsibilities, but I cannot get myself to snap out of the endless feed. The quick-natured scrolling and entertaining content can keep me hooked forever. I stay because I like not having an expectation of having to retain the information or make connections with the people in the videos I am watching. Other social media apps can feel fake or performative with people commenting on each other’s posts just to have other people see the comments or increase each other’s engagement. It does not feel authentic. Whereas TikTok is purely for my enjoyment with no expectations or connections to people I know in the real world.
This being said, I can and have gone multiple times without social media or my phone for a day, and sometimes even multiple days, up to a week. It is not something I feel I need but becomes a vice, more so when I feel anxious or overstimulated. But I can, and have, stayed off it when needed or because my phone or laptop is not around me (another instance of ADHD and object permanence).
Additionally, I am of the mindset that I do not have anything to hide. I have been very aware for a long time that social media and our cell phones are tracking everything we do, but if it creates videos that I will like and ads that I end up needing, then I will take it. But, I do agree that there are moral and ethical issues that social media has presented with violations of privacy and information usage. I know I am conscious of and almost comfortable with what I share and do on social media being used in other formats, but that does not mean that everyone is.
I believe my awareness of this topic has led me to not be mad at these companies and the technology for evolving into what it is today. It is completely understandable how this came about, but that does not mean we can’t or shouldn’t stop it from continuing. I fully agree with the case that human willpower can’t be expected to compete with some of the most sophisticated AI on the planet. The human race cannot process information at the same speed and resourcefulness that technology can. However, we can have humans edit it. They can perform quality checks and ensure these systems are working to the abilities that are set. This does not mean maxing them out but utilizing them well enough to keep operations running.
This also then implies that parameters and even legal measures need to be instated. Laws regarding social media consumption and what advertisers can and cannot do have not been addressed in over two decades. The only bill that has been passed federally “opened social media giants to more legal liability if they facilitate sex trafficking” (2021, McCabe & Kang). I believe this lack of regulations to be a large reason for how we have gotten so deep into the moral and ethical issues that have manifested.
In the end, there can be a balance. The more society is educated on practices that we see advertisers taking and create support and awareness for laws that could be implemented to help control the extremes, the more likely we are to find a point where we can enjoy social media without being consumed by it. It will take self-preservation and realization to find the problems within our consumption limits to help create a change, but I do not think our society’s social media dilemma is too far gone. But it is getting close…
McCabe, D., Kang, C. (2021, May 14). As Congress Dithers, States Step In to Set Rules for the Internet. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/14/technology/state-privacy-internet-laws.html
Orlowski, J. (2020). The Social Dilemma. Film; Netflix.