While I sit down to write, like any procrastinating writer of our times, I look for excuses that will keep me from the task at hand. It could be the windows and the weather (perhaps I need a pullover) or the more modern version of it – social media.
I’ve already checked my Twitter feed four times, my Facebook a few more and my Instagram alerts have made me spring up from my seat with a ‘live’ (or two) from a brand I favor.
Who am I kidding? I am a high-functioning millennial who is truly invested in social media. It’s where I get my news from, interact with friends, make commentary, and even narrow down on my next buy.
But lately I’ve started noticing that I am being ‘sold’ more than my fair share of merchandise. A single buy on a platform results in similar recommendations on another. A comment on a post seems to reveal my interests and the platform’s AI ensures I see more posts of the same kind. Interestingly, the news outlets I favor most tend not to show on my timeline but those that are seemingly more popular on the platform surely do wiggle their way into my feed.
I am in a cluttered mess that has little respect for my actual choices.
I began reading up online and my worst fears have come true. It’s almost sinister! Social media has been watching over me and in ways that I hadn’t imagined. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the last stone and it duly confirmed that my data and possibly yours, is being breached.
My private life is no longer private and my content is being made available increasingly to advertisers as we speak.
We were strapping teens or younger when we first got here. And social media held the promise of connecting you with anyone instantly, old classmates, former colleagues and even the teacher who gave you life-altering advice.
No voice was louder than another and we could express freely. We could connect with people, brands and communities that mattered to us, and all without a care in the world.
But somewhere down the line, our connections, creations, and communities became commodified.
What makes good social media?
I’d say ‘existing without agenda’.
What this means, quite simply, is that social media - any social media - exists, chiefly, to allow you to be social for the sake of being so, and nothing more - your feed reflects your interests and not the stealthy sales pitches of a big enterprise; your closest friends show up most often not those with majoritarian political views and so on.
Basically, a place where your choices and interests take precedence over those of the platform itself.
It isn’t wishing for the stars, but in fact what we really signed up for when these addictive platforms first came into our lives.
But, what’s stopping them?
Their business models.
When a service is provided free of cost, making your life simpler, more engaged and vibrant, surely they are taking something in return?
Sometimes much more than what you signed up for and often without your explicit permission.
On conventional social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, the data you produce (posts, images, and more) is stored in 'centralized' or platform-owned servers.
This data, though private in nature but since it lives on a server that somebody else owns can be mined by platform advertisers, data brokers, and 'partners' for patterns and behaviors, and used to sell you everything from products and services to political parties and right wing ideologies.
In other words, our lives are their currency.
Controversy after controversy hasn’t stopped giants like Facebook from capping this mining of data, including that of minors, on the platform. They quote their ‘terms of conditions’ often and yet breaches make news every few months.
Which brings us right back to the point that their models are broken and increasingly reliant on what is called ‘surveillance capitalism’.
Surveillance capitalism the reality of our times and the data we produce is being commoditized in specific ways that favor corporates, government agencies and most of all, the social media providers themselves.
However, it doesn’t end there.
As has been made clear, this data can be used by anyone with access to it to steer, even manipulate, the things you see, think and feel to drive you towards a motive – economic or political.
And the results of this can be catastrophic, to say the least.
What am I to them?
A pawn sometimes, a statistic at another.
You are as good as the content you post except when it interferes with their existing business models.
Your timeline is engineered for monetization. You will be fed items/ information that support revenue. As an article in Wired once quoted, the ‘economy of attention is the currency of cyberspace and the flow of this attention directly impacts the flow of money.’
So how then does that happen?
Through centralized content moderation.
We know our timelines are tampered with and control rests in the hands of a few people who have the platform’s best economic interests in mind.
Centralized policies and content moderation algorithms take away every ounce of human intervention. It is no wonder then that it is possible to take down a ‘post’ with enough reports of violation without explicit explanation.
An example of an Instagram post with menstrual blood stains comes to mind.
Furthermore, your support for a ‘cause’, your groups, ideologies work as constant fodder for this gigantic engine dictating what you see and how you see it.
It’s a loop you can’t break out of, even if you decide to leave the platform altogether. For, your data remains there.
If it’s broken, don’t fix it
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration here to draw parallels with asking your kidnapper for mercy. Quite akin to a post on the dangers of social media posted on Facebook.
In a graver scenario, much like the highly-criticized Democrat’s Green New Deal which [may] at its core reflects the urgency of the climate crisis, but fails to address the specificity of the time it is being renewed in.
The risk? A policy that could, in its tokenism, backfire altogether.
Similarly, social media the way it exists right now is broken at its very core. Facebook’s promises of end-to-end encryption of messages though welcome, will not overturn the business model that thrives in commoditizing user data.
Apologies and restructuring will follow a public data breach but little will be done to re-imagine its form or validate its motives.
What’s more dangerous than a widely reported public breach? One that is covert and continuous.
A new world
A conversation with a group of friends led us all thinking. Why were we giving away our precious data, even memories for the use of a handful of conglomerates? Why was our data not ours for the taking in the first place? And can we reclaim any of it, including control, or is it too late?
In this technologically advanced day and age, there was surely a way tip the status quo in favor of us users.
It’s when one of my friends introduced me to the concept of ‘decentralization’. And from my limited understanding, it appeared to be a fairer, more righteous, even rewarding way of conceptualizing social media.
We’ve already arrived at a digital first generation that is communicative, engaged and aware. A conscious, more humane social media is pretty much the need of the hour and it is ownership of content and distributed moderation models that will take away the lure of data extraction.
If you don’t own it, you can’t exploit it.
This will pave the way for a reformed approach built on the tenets of the well-being of the user. It will foster freedom of expression in its true sense without undue influence of corporate enterprises and governmental agencies.
More so, it will bring about a generation of independent thinkers who aren’t limited by what they see on their ‘timelines’ and have access to all the information they actively choose to see.
The control over your own privacy will also be real. So, the next time you post something on social media and take a moment to think about being exposed to ‘agenda’ or worse ‘persecution’, imagine a world where you didn’t have to.
Isn’t this what the world wide web promised us in the first place?