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The Reality of Social Media

Wouldn’t it be cool if all that time you spent on various social media platforms was rewarded with something more than the content you are consuming?

The status quo at the moment is that, well… the content you are consuming IS the reward. You’re seeing things you want to see, right? You’re seeing the things that trigger the right receptors, making you feel happy and making you want to see more.

Isn’t that the point? Maybe you used to go on social media sites because you wanted to connect with your friends, see what was happening in their lives and keep in touch despite being apart.

But as time went on, a few too many cat videos on your timeline instead of your friends’ thoughts, feelings, marriages and get-togethers and, ah well, that’s acceptable now.

So What?

You love cats, seeing cats make you feel good, so seeing a few cat videos from time-to-time must be good too – how else would you engage with all this amazing feline fun going on around the world?

You love elephants too, and dogs, and travelling, a certain style of dress, a few celebrities and a few TV series – so seeing all of these things perfectly wrapped up in a pre-packaged, easily consumable format to get your emotions buzzing is wonderful. No wonder every free moment most people are straight back online seeing what’s new on their feeds.

Surely there is nothing nefarious going on here… You’re seeing all this stuff because you made the conscious choice to do so. They just made it very easy for you to find and consume it all as quickly as possible.

At its core, this doesn’t seem so bad – people created the content right? So surely it makes economic sense for everyone involved – they deserve some of that money for the funny cat video they made…

Well the likelihood is: The content creator who actually made the content doesn’t get any money at all. And if they do, it is a tiny, tiny fraction of what the social media platform itself is making from that content.

At some point you should question – how on earth are they able to show me exactly the videos that I like to see? I didn’t tick a box at some point in the past that said ‘Show me more cat videos’.

Well, Social media sites, under the surface are very, very advanced – every time you use a social media website, or most websites in fact, every action you take is being logged and analyzed, so they can find out exactly who you are and what you like.

If that’s not heading towards something potentially harmful, I don’t know what is.

User Targeting in a nutshell looks something like this:-

  1. Show a wide range of content to users.
  2. See which content the user is naturally interacting with (watching for more than 5, 10, 30 seconds), liking, making full screen, browsing through album.
  3. Gradually weigh users interests and interactions in a large number of things and build a profile over time.

This could take the form of showing you your much-coveted cat videos, and then sliding in some popular Pizza content a few times – did you engage with the pizza adverts? How many times out of 100? 0? Okay, maybe you don’t like Pizza – we’ll try that again in a few days and see if we can get an engagement that shows us you might like Pizza.

What about this dog video? Aha – we have the feeling you might like dogs as you watched the whole video… Let’s try again with another one a few posts later. Yep, we’re onto something here, you’re a dog lover aren’t you!? Fantastic, we’ll add you to the ‘dog lover’ category and you’ll start seeing more dog videos.

All of this may still be sounding like harmless fun – in the same way that maybe fizzy drinks aren’t necessarily great for your body, but you still drink them because you get something from them.

But here’s where it gets sketchy…

4. Allow entities to advertise their content to users based on the categories that users have been placed into.

Well, that’s not so bad at first glance, but with this utterly specific targeting, honed through years of exploring and experimenting, drilling down and perfecting algorithms and patterns, you reach a stage where…

You quite literally begin to know users interests better than they themselves know.

You know from analysing hundreds of millions of people, that someone who likes these 6 musicians, 4 movies, 3 soda brands, 5 restaurants, saw these particular pieces of content in the last few days, went to the cinema with their friends to watch that movie yesterday and is in town (yeah, location tracking)… has a good chance of being interested in buying such-and-such an item, because history has demonstrated that for users who match those preferences this is the case.

As it turns out, we’re actually at the very early stages of this data modelling process and it is somewhat¬†limited in its influence, but no doubt, if you are a social media user, you are being shown things that will likely be attempting to influencing your buying habits.

Worse than that is the knock-on effect from being shown new stories and other content that totally matches what you believe, so that in every case and all occasions, you’re seeing the spin that validates your world view – leading to polarized ideological thinking and friend-vs-foe mentality.

So let’s do a roundup…

  1. Creating positive feedback loops on content you want to see – making an addictive platform.
  2. Persistently analyzing the users to find out exactly who everyone is, and what their interests are.
  3. Not paying any users for the content they put on the platform – monetizing it with ads and keeping the profit.
  4. Letting advertisers drill directly into the well-analyzed users and serve ads to them.

In my experience this is starting to look like something pretty anti-privacy, anti-trust, anti-transparent and anti-social.

If you consider that these platforms gained users by first allowing real-life friends to interact with one another, what we’ve ended up with looks like something completely different.

The world is a very complex place and there are no simple answers, correct ideologies, or one-size-fits-all solutions and increasingly we are seeing more and more tension and rifts in society from all directions.

People who have never met should not be polarized into hating each-other based on worldview. More importantly, that hatred should never escalate to dangerous conflict, especially when it could be resolved with the mutual agreement to never meet or interact again and then going separate ways.

In Conclusion

Social media as it stands today is reaching a boiling point, and I don’t believe that this kind of behaviour can go on forever – nor do I believe that we’ve seen the full dangers of it. Humans are nothing if not very resilient so this course can be corrected.

What we can begin to do is attempt to reverse the damage and attempt to build freer and more open social networks, on a core foundation of transparency and respect for personal liberty.

And true respect for Personal liberty for me is not being fed content you WILL enjoy every time you set foot on social network websites, whilst being totally oblivious, as a user, to the fact that this is happening.

And that’s not all – Many decentralized social networks (the most advanced of which are being built on EOS) are planning on building platforms around economics, which can give users and content creators their due for the first time since the dawn of Social Media.

An interesting approach for a platform would be to show content which is challenging and contrary to your worldview – likely this assault on your ego would be a great stimulus for growth and personal development. Set an example of the mindset which has the courage to resolve differences and challenge one’s own views.

And, after you’ve spent some time challenging your identity, go meet your opposition, agree to disagree and have a laugh over drinks and talk about the likely many other things you have in common – and in doing so, begin to make the world a better place.

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