Social Needia

All arguments over and done, we stand on different sides of the barricades. Either you believe the claims of corporations making money selling your data – words, photos, videos, dreams – or you don’t.

I don’t.

It all boils down to trust and you pick who you choose to believe. Just don’t tell me you haven’t been bothered by the ads you see on Facebook and Instagram, that everything doesn’t feel a tad uncanny. Because it is uncanny, weird, and – dare I say – plain wrong.

We’ve been had, and we don’t want to see it, because we need it. Now more than ever.

There’s an algorithm (there’s always an algorithm) that decides what you get when you open up Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook on your phone. The algorithm decides what you’ll watch, see, and read when you’re bored. If you’ve enabled whatever screen time feature your phone of choice has, you’ll know how much of your waking hours this algorithm – one or several, because you’re probably on more than one social network, aren’t your? – claims. You’re fed what you need, in the mind of the social network. If Facebook wants you to read about the plight of orangoutangs, that’ll be what you get.

Problem is, Facebook doesn’t give a shit about orangoutangs. It likes advertising dollars, because that’s how businesses work. Even if it means taking money from the orangutang hating lobby out there, spending ad dollars to enlist you in their devious cause.

Do you hate orangoutangs now?

If not, don’t worry, you might in the end, because propaganda is effective and you’ll get it in your bathroom before work, sitting at your desk, on the toilet after lunch, in your commute home, and in bed when your better half has fallen asleep.

Fuck the orangoutangs, right?

Everything you publish is analyzed and put into the machine. Oh, they call it something else, but this megadatabase will feed the advertising network all it needs to know to sell you what you didn’t know you wanted. Except it’s not quite there yet, is it? And you might be happy about that, feeling safe that you see the same ad over and over for a barbecue that you googled a while back. It’s reassuring, but also just a bonus for the Advertising Machine. Because they just don’t have a buyer for you yet, otherwise you’d see something meaningful. No, sorry, but you’re not special to them. It’s not that they don’t know you’ve made your purchase, or gotten close enough that further ads on the matter have little to no effect. No, they’ll just pad the advertising scheme a bit, and tell you that you’re in control (you’re not) by showing you something blatantly wrong (by default) so that you won’t suspect their next advertisement.

Because it’s all about the advertising revenue. Not about community, not about saving humanity, not about democracy, not about anything but money. There are shareholders, and profit is key. The thing they sell is the persona of you, created from what you give them. That persona is converted to ad dollars, and thus the lights are still on in their offices, and you get your fix. They might fill your need, but you pay their bills with your contributions. And then some.

Nobody expects them to give you a social network for free. You pay with your ignorance, and personal information that can end up anywhere, if the price is right.

The alarm goes off and you reach for your phone.

Take a moment to think on that sentence, that reality. It’s every day for most. Aren’t your reaching for the wrong thing?

Let’s start again.

The alarm goes off and you reach for your phone. Instagram is full of beautiful and honest snapshots from your network. There’s coffee and art, children and happiness, luxury and work, sadness and expectations – all the things that make up lives. Filtered, of course.

Watch it. Scroll it. Like it. Like it.

Like it like it like it.

Like it.

Like the photo of a mother playing with her son at the kitchen table. Maybe leave a comment (but probably not). Feel good about sharing your compassion with the tap of a finger.

Except it doesn’t mean anything.

You have hundreds of “friends” on your social media of choice. They post things, and sometimes you feel the need to validate these with interaction. Like this, heart that, comment this, retweet that.

It doesn’t mean you care, nor does it mean they do. Even if – when – it’s true.

Expectations are the new reality, the need to be validated the new purpose.

But it means nothing. You press the heart and scroll on, and so do they. Your childhood friend had a baby and you press like, fooled into thinking it has any meaning, other than connecting dots for advertising dollars.

You need to be there. You need to see what’s going on, and react to it. What if you’d to miss what a former colleague whom you haven’t spoken to in five years is doing. Oh the horror, the humanity.

Need. That’s what they’re after. You need them, to feel connected and to know what’s going on. Don’t worry your pretty little head about why, just keep feeding that need.

Feed the Advertising Machine.

Feed the idea that your likes and hearts actually counts as communication. Because honestly, you do know it doesn’t, and isn’t, right? It’s just convenient because it means you don’t have to maintain so many relationships, yet you can pretend you have them. Oh so many relationships.

There are meaningful conversations and exchanges on social networks. Plenty of them. They’re never about hearts and likes though, and they probably happen in direct messaging of some sort. There are groups, open and closed, that fill a purpose. All of that is as true now as it was before. The problem is, when you participate in these conversations, you give away everything not just to the people you want to communicate with, but also to the Advertising Machine. To the megadatabase that knows everything about you, with shadow profiles and personas for everyone and everything around you. That might not matter if you speak about trivial things, but there are support groups out there, personal exchanges of intimate things, people sharing their grief and fears. All read, all analyzed, all used to sell even more ads.

And that’s just half of it. What happens when personal – intimate – data reach evil hands? Oppressors and regimes love social networks, and the information they get from them. Thinking that it can’t happen because it’s Silicon Valley is ridiculous.

Does that scare you? It worries me.

These are strange days. We’re in quarantine, or at least keeping distance to each other. Thinking before we act, or that’s the idea here in Sweden anyway.

In such times, social media is the natural way to keep in touch. It’s where it shines, when everything’s shit and people yearn for closeness but can’t get it, not really, not in person. That message, that heart, that like, they might actually mean something. Maybe not for you, but for someone who’s on the brink.

That’s the problem. People react from their own situation, that’s why this is complicated. Because if that wasn’t the case I’d just tell you to quit Facebook and the like. It’s the right thing to do, until it isn’t.

That like might save a life. Or, more likely, make someone’s brain fire some endorphins for a moment. That’s possibly worthwhile.

Of course, a proper text or phone call would mean so much more. Magnitudes more, in fact, but still. You and I, we don’t have the time, the mental strength, the inclination even, to pick up the phone at all times. That’s just the way it is for most people. Busy lives rarely align as well as you’d hope and want.

This isn’t easy.

Then there’s the social expectations of keeping a presence on social media. Do you exist in people’s minds if you’re not there? Some people get by just fine without it, but for a lot of people it might not be so clear cut. How much of that is the famous Fear of Missing Out, and actually missing out, is hard to tell. It’ll depend on the person, most likely.

When I moved back to Stockholm I missed things going on by not being active on Facebook, because the crowd I hung out with relied entirely on Facebook events. I didn’t want to be left out, and thus Facebook sucked me back in. Instagram was the same, it was the only way to keep up with some people I cared about. They’re good at that, sucking you back in. Frighteningly so.

There are good things happening there, and on other social platforms. I won’t argue against that.

I just wish it didn’t involve feeding Advertising Machines, relying on giving away personal information, and being subject to an increasingly twisted algorithm in terms of how the content actually gets delivered to its intended audience. Or not reaching it, as it were.

I wish people would just talk to each other. And for the larger, wider, more important conversation pieces, start a blog or site or whatever you want to call it. At least then neither your words nor your audience would get catalogued and sold to the highest bidder. And yes, that’s assuming you can abscond from tracking scripts, which you should (and I do).

So where does that lead us? To a decentralized web, again? Isles of blogs, newsletter publications, closed encrypted chat rooms on Telegram? Why, yes, that would be grand, if you ask me. Use today’s social media for broadcasting if you like – the megaphone on a soap box – but take control of the rest. The ownership and the business model, if such a thing exists.

Or not. Just know what you’re doing when you’re buying into Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and its ilk. Understand that they know everything about you, and that it goes beyond what you give them knowingly. Also understand that they know just as much about the people you mention, even if they’re not on social media themselves. They don’t need an account to understand that you’re talking about a friend, publishing a photo of someone, or referencing some event you went to with your family. Sure, it helps, but it’s not a requisite.

Then think about what you publish, who’ll see it, and why. Maximum impact for the social network and its advertisers isn’t necessarily the reach you were looking for. Intentional or not, echo chambers and tilted messaging will happen. Following a Page on Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get the updates, unless said Page pays for it – things like that are part of the business model. Your feed is not yours to control. You get what you’re fed, tailored to increase your need.

Understand all this, and act on it, however you see fit.

Related: Services I’m Quitting