Once upon a time, the personal computer stored the user data. Then, the Web came along. What made the Web a mighty force was that it was free. Anyone could access and build applications for the Web. In those days, the Web was decentralized. Nobody, not one person, could say they own, control, or switch off the Web.
Then, smartphones came along. Software companies started to have access to users’ data. User data became a currency, so it made sense for software companies to make it as difficult as possible for users to migrate their data to other services. In short, this is the concept of vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in builds dependency: once you start using a vendor’s services, it becomes harder to move to a concurrent service. For example, if all your family are is on Facebook, you are locked into Facebook. If your family only uses WhatsApp, you are locked into WhatsApp. If your company uses Microsoft Office, you are locked into Microsoft Office.
The result is that we moved from the decentralized Web to the centralized Web, where applications own, control, switch off, surveil or censor their ecosystem.
We also moved from the free Web to the “free” Web.
Unfortunately, in English, there is no distinction between “for free” and “liberty”. Thus, the software community adopted two phrases: “free as in freedom of speech” (libre, free software) and “free as in free beer” (gratis, freeware). Free software or “libre software” (borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom) means that users have the freedom to distribute, copy, change the software that is not necessarily gratis. Gratis software has a price of zero.
With this distinction in mind, is using social media applications gratis? No, of course not. There is no monetary price to be paid because we pay social media services with our data, time, and attention.
Every time we use the Web or mobile applications, we leave a data trail behind, ready to be used, abused, or sold to the highest bidder.
Take unroll.me, an email decluttering service that unsubscribes its users from email lists. This service has access to email subscriptions, purchase receipts, travel reservations, or shipping-related emails to know which subscriptions to remove. Unroll.me had been selling user data to Uber so that Uber can gain insights about how many of their users were using their competitor, Lyft (remember, unroll.me had access to receipts, including Lyft receipts). Unfortunately, this is only one tiny fragment that we know of from the millions of other user data exploitation.
Occasionally, application or cloud startup services offer their service for free. They try to sign up as many users as possible, hoping for a charge or a subscription later. Be wary when using such a service. Leading companies (Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc.) can buy services you are using and shut them down with few chances of recovering your data. If startups go out of business, they can sell their user database to return money to their investors.
Unfortunately, paying for a service does not guarantee user data will not be used or sold.
As I mentioned earlier, “free” social media applications take hostage not only our data but our attention and time as well. Social media algorithms want us to stay longer and engaged in their ecosystems as these algorithms hoard and exploit additional bits and bytes of our identities in the background.
That is why we see content that social media algorithms assume we will click on, share, like, or discuss.
What content is guaranteed to always spread like wildfire? Appalling and surprising misinformation (defined by Nina Schick in her Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse book as “bad information with no malicious intent behind it”) and disinformation (information meant to deceive) always gather user traction and engagement. Then, alongside click-baiting titles, our social media history (what content we interacted with in the past) considerably determines what content we will see in the future.
Why is that? Whenever we find out a new piece of information, we tend to judge it. If it is consistent with our world model, we are inclined to accept it. If it is inconsistent, then we are tempted to refuse it. The algorithm plays this routine repeatedly, learning about our preferences and keeping us engaged for longer and longer in a walled garden where the stress and unpleasantness of different opinions and mental models are almost non-existent.
Enter virtual social bubbles and echo chambers where our biases are distorted and amplified because engaging with social media algorithms is autocatalytic (the process feeds itself).
For example, social media can make you feel jealous, angry, hateful even. You start feeling bad about yourself, maybe experiencing a nagging sensation that you are not enough. So, you check more social media to find a tribe where you belong, a community where you feel at peace scattering negative messages about other tribes that made you feel conflicted about yourself.
A shift is coming. The inventor of the “free as in free beer” and decentralized web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is currently involved with a new project that aims to change the way applications work today, The Solid Project. Suppose a user keeps their digital data in decentralized servers, called Pods. No organization can longer control their data, but they need to ask for the user permission to access relevant data in a Pod. Another project is Elastos, a blockchain-powered Internet in which users have complete control over their digital assets.
Although social media applications were built on top of the free Web, these services didn’t repay the kindness (Wikipedia is the most significant exception). These applications gathered massive and unacceptable control over our lives as algorithms determine the size of our social bubbles, reconstructing a reality based on our preferences, likes, and biases.
The Web should become re-decentralized and truly free again, where we own our data, and we control the depth and breadth of our mental models through repeated exposure to news and views from outside our echo chambers.
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/the-perils-of-living-inside-the-walled-gardens-of-social-media/.
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