It is Christmas 2020 and eight months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged us to maintain ‘social distancing’. However, India and others alike, did not maintain the prescribed ‘social distancing’. We chose to maintain ‘physical distancing’ while continuing to be socially connected. This was possible due to technology. A special thanks to social media platforms, which are now an indispensable part of our lives. From preschool children to senior citizens, we all seem to love it.
It will not be wrong to even admit that for many of us, the first activity each morning is to check our phones. At times, we are keener to help Mr Zuckerberg earn his daily bread and butter, even if it costs us ours.
It has become almost impossible to reach the end of one’s newsfeed. It really is endless. We have now become addicted to social media, especially ‘Gen Z-ers,’ including myself. There are statistics available on the internet listing the time individuals spend, on average, on social media. I will, however, cite a personal observation. In my social circle itself, many are known to use social media for at least six hours daily and some, even more.
Are we the customer or the product?
With such excessive influence of social media in our lives, it has become imperative for us to question if we are customers or rather the product of these giant platforms? Is it doing more harm than good? While most of us believe that we are the customer, experts suggest we are actually the product. Yes, it implies that it is us who are sold. To be precise, our time is sold.
Allow me to explain in relative detail. You are a customer when you buy a product. Do we pay for Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp? The answer is we do not. It is the advertisers who pay these companies in exchange for their advertisements on our social media feed. Therefore, they are the customers and the business model is designed to hold our attention and engage us. It is our time that is purchased by advertisers.
You may be questioning, “Will displaying an ad guarantee its success? What if we do not want to subscribe to what these advertisements are offering?”. A valid question. This is where companies prove that their ‘foot soldiers’ and space age supercomputers can beat our mind. It is now the platform’s turn to make these advertisements successful. This is how we are outsmarted by ‘attention engineers’.
Search made easy — good or bad?
Have you searched for a product on Flipkart only to see its advertisement on Facebook sometime later? The answer will be in the affirmative for most. These social media platforms have access to most of our activities – our searches, what we buy, what content we stream and whom we stalk. Our social media journeys are entirely tracked.
Using this data, algorithms will now analyse your browsing history and display what we possibly need. A good thing perhaps you’d say. Predictive results being shown, right? Well, not always. They will now stimulate us to ‘like what they offer’. This will gradually change our attitude and behaviour by exploiting our psychology – technicaly defined as ‘persuasive technology’.
Moreover, advertisements are not limited to products that can be purchased. It is also for posts and videos. In such cases, you will be fed with the kind of videos that you like. Consequently, you will stick to the platform longer. This should also warn us about serious privacy concerns. In this regard, a US senator questioned Mr. Zuckerberg if he would share his lodging information or messages with others. The answer was a “no”. Is our personal stored information not important? You may think ‘no’ but it is vital. They probably know more about us than we do about ourselves.
Engagement, attention and certification
The key focus here is engagement. All of these are only possible when one is engaged with the platform. This is where they play with our psychology. WhatsApp displays if one is typing or recording a message. Are these merely for our information? It is not. These features stimulate our engagement. Imagine you are about to leave the app and then you see your friend is ‘typing…’. Chances are you will stop until you have received and read the message.
Similarly, if we are notified that our friend ‘tagged’ us in a picture, we cannot help but click on it. Otherwise we will never know “what picture did he or she share?” Or maybe wonder, “Am I looking good in the picture?” With teenagers, chances are they will initiate a conversation in the comment section, only to increase their engagement. The persuasive technology is yet again used here to help us unconsciously develop a habit. The habit may be anything, including casually refreshing the newsfeed several times to see newer posts.
I recently joined Snapchat and saw they have something called ‘streak’ which people crave to maintain. They assign emojis which categorise one as “#1 best friend”, “another best friend” and so on. These emojis are displayed based on how frequently we share ‘snaps’ with our friends. As a result, people send ‘snaps’ even for no reason. So then if there is no communication, is it worth it? Well, only engagement matters. Do we now need certification about friendships from apps? Call me ‘old-school’, but I don’t think that app-assigned emojis are credentials of friendships.
The problem is never with platforms. It is with how they affect us. Social media, as discussed, has the ability to persuade us. It affects our psyche. Many teenagers, and also adults, are obsessed with the filters that beautify pictures. In many cases, this obsession results in lower self-esteem. People gradually want to look like they do in the pictures, pushing them to opt in for plastic surgery. This procedure, does pose a strong possibility of even going wrong.
This phenomenon of perceiving flaws with our own looks has also been termed “Snapchat dysmorphia”. Such obsession may seem silly to you and me, but it is not. It is a mental illness. The victim’s psyche does not think like most normal souls do. In some cases, social media trolling is also responsible for this. Not everyone can ignore hate comments.
Biochemistry – smoking or drinking?
One feels good when people like or react to their pictures. This ‘reward of reacts’ further pushes one towards a dangerous form of narcissism. Our biochemistry is responsible for this, thanks to the release of dopamine – a chemical which when released makes one feel good. This is why one feels good even at the receipt of a text. Dopamine is the same hormone that gives one a sense of pleasure after consumption of cigarettes, addictive drugs and after drinking or gambling. It is therefore highly addictive.
Does this not make social media an ‘addiction’ yet? Many are in fact anxious with “why did he or she unfriend me?” Or “why am I not receiving likes?”. If we think of it, this is exactly why researchers have proven that people on social media possess greater chances of depression than people who do not have a presence on such platforms. Dopamine released after drinking makes one turn to a bottle on occasions of financial, career or social stress.
Our generation therefore turns to social media to cope with stress more than people in preceding generations. This really is a serious predicament – one that is only gradually beginning to be recognised. If you believe that occasional drinking, after a certain age, is good while excessive consumption is a vice, you ought to believe that the same holds true for social . Ironically, the latter can be accessed well before alcohol permissive age limits are reached.
A multipurpose knife
Like everything else, even social media has it pros and cons. The popular multipurpose knife analogy explains it well; it depends on how we use it. It is known that while it offers tremendous help by letting people find jobs, internships, long-lost friends, maintain effective communication and start new progressive movements; it is equally infamous for distorting facts, giving events a communal or biased outlook, spreading propaganda, misleading people, and also spreading deadly fake news.
It is, therefore, entirely up to us as to how we use it. One does not really need to quit social media completely. We do not live under the rock after all. It is a great tool, making it the order of the day. What we need are reforms; a balance must be maintained. Ironically this suggestion is being penned by a social media addict. The saving grace is that yours truly realises these negative attributes that social media presents and is optimistic about making improvements in this regard.
Acknowledge and regulate
Any semblance of change will only be possible when we acknowledge that our mind is vulnerable and can be persuaded by smart technologies. The problem is in our habits, and their business model. The model may not be wrong legally but is sure questionable, morally. It is therefore time to reflect upon the perils of the modern era and act wisely.
On an individual level, we must understand the functioning and utilise it to the best of our interests rather than risk evolving into lab rats. The companies also must exercise restraint and act more sensibly by shaping their business models towards the greater good.
Noted personalities such as author Simon Sinek or president of the Center for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, have voiced their concerns. These ideas, problems, solutions and the functioning behind the curtains is well highlighted in a Netflix original – The Social Dilemma. This thought-provoking documentary begins with a quote from Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse”. In my opinion, the same holds true for social media too. As we commence making resolutions for the year ahead, do consider an inclusion that is ‘social media centric’.