Even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.
—John Lanchester

WHEN I ASK PEOPLE WHICH category of apps they find the most problematic, social media is the most common response. Like junk food, the content of these apps is hard to stop consuming, even when you’re aware that it’s making you feel sick.

It should make you feel sick. From its deliberately addictive design to its surveillance-based business model, social media represents the epitome of “Trojan horse design”: it’s meant to manipulate us into doing and sharing things we otherwise would not—often with negative effects on our mental health and society at large. And once you understand the forces behind social media, you may begin to think differently about many of the other apps and features on your phone, too.

Let’s start with a question: have you ever wondered why social media apps are all free? It’s not because their creators are driven by a philanthropic urge to help the world share selfies. It’s because we are not actually the customers, and the social media platform itself is not the product.

Instead, the customers are advertisers. And the product being sold is our attention.

Think about it: The more attention we devote to Facebook or Twitter or a dating app or other social media, the more chances there are for the program to show us a sponsored post. And the more information we voluntarily post, the more personalized, attention-stealing, and profitable (for the social media company) the sponsored posts and ads will be.

In the words of Dopamine Labs founder Ramsay Brown, “You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.”

As we touched upon earlier, the prize these advertisers are after is “engagement,” which is the metric by which companies evaluate the number of clicks, likes, shares, and comments associated with their content. Engagement is sometimes referred to as “the currency of the attention economy,” and advertisers are willing to spend a lot of money for it. Global ad spending on social media in 2016 was $31 billion, almost double what it was just two years before.

In other words, every moment of attention we spend scrolling through social media is attention spent making money for someone else. The numbers are staggering: a New York Times analysis calculated that as of 2014, Facebook users were spending a collective 39,757 years’ worth of attention on the site, every single day. It’s attention that we didn’t spend on our families, or our friends, or ourselves. And just like time, once we’ve spent attention, we can never get it back.

This is a really big deal, because our attention is the most valuable thing we have. We experience only what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to. When we decide what to pay attention to in the moment, we are making a broader decision about how we want to spend our lives.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with spending your attention on social media (or on any other app). There is also nothing wrong with a designer trying to make an app that’s fun, engaging, and profitable. But as users, we should be using our apps because we’ve made a conscious choice to do so—not because of manipulative psychological tricks that are meant to make money for someone else.

SOCIAL MEDIA KNOWS HOW TO STEAL OUR ATTENTION

Once you’re aware of the motives behind social media platforms—namely, attention stealing and information gathering—you’ll begin to notice how these motives are incorporated into their designs.

As we’ve discussed, “Like” buttons and comment features aren’t just there to help us connect with other people; they’re there because adding metrics to social interactions is a guaranteed way to keep us going back to see our “score.”

HOW TO UNLIKE “LIKES”

If you find yourself obsessed with amassing likes, you may want to install a Facebook demetricator browser plug-in—it removes all the “scores” from Facebook so that instead of saying “57 people liked your post,” it will simply say, “People like this.” See if this makes a difference. Then ask yourself why Facebook itself doesn’t provide this option.

Similarly, it would be easy for social media apps to be built with optional “stopping cues” to help us control our consumption. An app could give you the choice to see posts only from the last hour or day, or to set a limit for how much time you want to spend looking at your feed. But providing options like this might reduce “engagement.” So instead, the feeds are deliberately designed to be endless. And even though we know that we will never “finish” our feeds, we keep scrolling, in pursuit of the dopamine hits that we get from every new post.

SOCIAL MEDIA IS MAKING US DEPRESSED

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of social media is the effects that it is having on our real-life relationships with other people—and, as a consequence, on our mental health.

Most people sign up for social media accounts out of a desire to feel connected—but numerous studies suggest that the more we use social media, the less happy we will be. In 2017, the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at the same group of people over time, hoping to determine whether social media use actually caused unhappiness, as opposed to simply appealing to people who are already unhappy. It concluded that there does indeed appear to be a causal relationship. As the authors described their results in the Harvard Business Review, “We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

In an article in The Atlantic titled, disturbingly, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” psychologist Jean Twenge presents compelling evidence that, as she puts it, “the arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” (While teenagers are extreme examples of this, I would argue that smartphones are doing the same to the rest of us, too.)

The article includes charts representing various trends in teenage behaviors from 1976 to 2016. From time spent hanging out with friends to the age of getting drivers’ licenses to dating to sleep to sex to (most strikingly) loneliness, the charts all have one thing in common: the slope of their lines changes dramatically after 2007, the year the first iPhone was released.

Look at this data together and it’s hard not to come to the same conclusion as Twenge: “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.” As she puts it, today’s teens may be physically safer than their predecessors (less likely to drive drunk, for example). But that is likely because they are “on their phone, in their room, alone, and often distressed.” Depression among teenagers is way up. Suicide rates are, too.

SOCIAL MEDIA IS BIG BROTHER

Imagine that someone knocked on your door and asked you to register the following information with the government: your full name, birth date, phone number, email address, physical address, education and work history, relationship status, names and photographs of all family members and friends, photographs and videos of yourself for as far back in time as possible, your political leanings, your travel history, your favorite books, your favorite music, and your favorite, well, everything. Would you?

On social media, we provide this information (and more) voluntarily—and with virtually no thought as to what the social media company might do with this information. As Antonio García Martínez, former product manager at Facebook, writes in his memoir, Chaos Monkeys, “The biggest thing going on in marketing right now, what is generating tens of billions of dollars in investment and endless scheming inside the bowels of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple, is how to tie…different sets of [information] together, and who controls the links.”

The amount of information that Facebook has about its users is truly shocking—García Martínez refers to Facebook as “the regulator of the biggest accumulation of personal data since DNA.” What most of us don’t realize is that Facebook doesn’t just know everything you do and share on Facebook. Thanks to Facebook buttons and cookies (small files left behind on your computer that make it possible for companies to track your activities across sites), Facebook also knows many of the websites you’ve visited, apps you’ve used, and links you’ve clicked on. And thanks to partnerships with external data-collection companies such as Equifax, it knows countless details about your offline life, too, including (but not limited to!) your income and basically every purchase you’ve ever made with a card.

Finally, there’s one more important reason to be aware of the motivations behind social media: the effects all this targeting and personalization is having on society as a whole.

For as creepy as it might be to think of a company controlling this much data about such an enormous number of people, the only purpose, from Facebook’s perspective, is to make Facebook money. On the positive side, this means that Facebook is very protective of its data because it’s valuable. But the negative side is that Facebook does not have any intrinsic reason to care about whether the content that it’s helping its advertisers share with us is factually accurate. Instead, the goal is clicks. And when it comes to garnering clicks, the more sensational a post is, the better.

When you put this together with Facebook’s ability to target ads (in this example, in the form of fake news stories) to the people who are the most likely to click on and share them, we end up in a situation where the stories that show up in my newsfeed might be completely different from those that show up in your newsfeed—and where none of them have been vetted to make sure they reflect any version of reality. The more this happens, the more we risk creating a society in which we no longer have a shared definition of the “truth.” 

Youth Voices is an open publishing platform for youth. The site is organized by teachers with support from the National Writing Project. Opinions expressed by writers are their own.

CC BY-SA 4.0All work on Youth Voices is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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