How Social Media Is Taking Over Our Lives and Why It's Alarmingly Beyond Our Control
July 02, 2021 by Latifa Sekarini
Society has developed a codependent relationship with social media. We depend on social media to stay well-informed, well-connected, and well-kempt. The various apps we use act as a calendar, a photo album, a virtual messenger, and much more. Social media has also become inseparable from politics and culture. It informs our choices, our views, and most of our personality. If anything, it is our dependence on social media that maximizes its danger.
Part of what makes the Internet so dependable is the massive amount of user data it stores, which coincidentally makes it a perfect place for targeted advertising and privacy violations. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, and Amazon sell user data, such as their email address, date of birth, and location, to marketers and advertisers. Marketers and advertisers will then use it to predict what users are interested in buying. Although we might consider these details a small price to pay in exchange for an Instagram account, companies will collect enough information over time to form a rough sketch of who we are. That information is specific enough for the companies to predict personality types, emotional states, or even a customer’s pregnancy. The problem is, even if social media companies disclose their privacy policies in their terms of service, most policies aren’t self-explanatory. Most users are not aware of what they are giving up in exchange for service and remain unsuspecting of how the Internet stores and sells their data, amplifying the horror of the situation. The American writer Jia Tolentino describes this process of tracking, recording, and reselling user data as “a regime of involuntary technological surveillance” and claims that it “subconsciously decreases our resistance to the practice of voluntary self-surveillance on social media.”
Whether we like it or not, social media controls our behavior discreetly and uncannily. Trevor Haynes, a research technician in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School notes that neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways as cocaine. Users exhibit “classic reward-seeking lab-rat behavior” as they wait for rewarding social stimuli that come in the form of likes, messages, and positive comments. Social media companies take advantage of their users’ dopamine-driven need for stimuli. Some programmers perform “brain-hacking,” a technique that utilizes code to provoke a neurological response from people using those programs and keeps them hooked. For example, Instagram's notification algorithm tends to deliver “likes” on photos in large, random bursts rather than smaller, consistent bursts. This pushes users to habitually check the app, waiting to receive more “likes.” Companies aren’t just controlling an algorithm that informs users how to behave, they’re controlling the way users interact with that algorithm by taking advantage of people’s hormones and neurological function.
Despite the popular narrative that technology is what users make of it, this is just not true—social media controls our world and the people in it using algorithms and code, whether we like it or not. The system built around social media companies and networking apps assures us that even if we avoid social media; we essentially live in a world shaped by it. Mainstream media shapes politics, culture, and personal opinion, and social media plays a large part in sponsoring and shedding a light on topics such as Trump’s rise to power, Greta Thunberg’s viral protests and the boom in youth activism, and the revival of 2000s pop culture trends on TikTok. At the end of the day, social media companies will prioritize profit and engagement over anything else. Much of their success can be attributed to the great lengths they’ve gone to monopolize our attention. Tech companies are not going to change their business models for us. It’s time for us to ask ourselves whether the time we devote to social networking apps is worth it.
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