You are probably aware of the effects social media use can have on you, but you use them anyway. So do I! However, to me it is an ongoing struggle, a love/hate relationship that leans into the aversion side. How do we successfully navigate the social media in the world?
The business model of social media
Of course you know the basics of how it works: social media use their algorithms to basically get you addicted to their online platforms. Over time these algorithms learn what kind of posts you interact with, what kind of posts make you hover and make you click. They use this information to create the perfect feel and feed that keep your attention captured for as long as possible, and if you’ve left they send notifications to lure you back in. As long as you are online, they can sell highly targeted ads that you will see.
And we collectively love it. We’re able to make our own profile and post our own posts, so it’s all very creative and interactive. These perfect feeds are filled by us users, not by the platforms themselves.
Social media are businesses and you are the product, together with your attention, the data generated and your spending money. That is a simplified explanation of how it works. * See the text box below for a more accurate one.
Vital to realise is that social media do not aim to deliver you the best experience for the sake of you. Instead they design and tweak your experience so to harness the resources they need to feed into their own goals of increasing revenue.
The more detailed description:
Actually, the true business model is a bit more complicated, as a friend just pointed out. So here goes!
Your use of social media generates data, which the platforms use to get to know you and how you behave. They use this to build sets of user profiles of ‘different types of people’ so to predict behaviour of their users. So, based on your social media use, they can – with growing accuracy – predict your characteristics and thus your behaviour, including how you respond to advertisements.
This knowledge generated then helps them sell highly-targeted ads. Advertisers can select a very specific target group for their ads to be shown to. The idea is that this way the engagement of users who see the ads, meaning the people that actually look and click, is relatively high. So this means more value for the advertisers! And more power for the social media platforms, because they are the only ones offering advertising like this.
So, you yourself are (of course) not the product and your use isn’t either. Instead, your social media use is more like a resource: it generates data for them to use, ánd you (when using) are a target for ads. The products are the predictions of behaviour and the ads (and maybe more!). The actual customers are the advertisers who pay the platforms, which forms the income stream.
You are not a customer, but a user that makes all the above possible.
The effects on your way of being
Our world is changing fast and social media are huge players in how we interact with the world today. What does that do to us humans?
I value being myself in this world and I love reflecting on my experiences, therefore I have to recognize at least part of the effects social media have on me.
Scrolling for satisfaction
I am sure you have thought of these effects: social media give you this instant satisfaction dopamine hit when you see something likeable, which gets you hooked on endless scrolling. Even if you do not get satisfied, you likely continue, hoping you will be satisfied later in the process.
And honestly, it is never enough, because how satisfying can it really be? You weren’t searching for something specific in the first place, so you are never going to find it.
So, social media alter your way of being. Using it alters your concentration span, your longing for these dopamine hits and thereby your longing for distraction, for escaping the present moment.
Social media are basically anti-meditation or anti-yoga. They are the ultimate distraction machines that make you less able to be present, mindfull and content. They make you restless and addicted to instant satisfaction. They make you into a follower.
If you are searching for lasting peace and happiness in your life, you will not find it in your feed. Sure, you can find inspiration and wisdom from your influencers, but the platforms are not made for you to get inspired and go integrate that in your life. Above all, they are designed to keep you on there. So you may get hooked on inspirational quotes without being inclined to truly start experiencing their profound wisdom.
Becoming a marketing machine
It’s a very funny thing that I actually started using Instagram for the first time when I started teaching kundalini yoga this year. I did not want to get on Instagram, but I got pressured into doing so, so to promote my yoga class. See, I had my own new yoga class and I had to promote it myself. This is also when and why I got back to Facebook, after having left earlier because of the power they have in the world.
However, I very soon found out I am not a kundalini yoga marketing machine. It did not sit well with me and I stopped trying. I am not even a kundalini yogi – if there is even such a thing as kundalini yoga. (Go here for the explainer of why I am so sceptical.).
I don’t think I’m a social media marketing machine at all, but that remains undecided to this day. You see, social media itself is a big marketing machine – literally, think about it! – and it shapes its users to be so too. Maybe it wasn’t the intention at first, but it did grow that way.
Fact is that we have limited amounts of attention and time, so on socials we have to select whom to follow and whom to ignore. Likewise, because or our limited amounts of attention and time, we have to select what to do with it and how much of it to spend on posting on socials ourselves, and in what way.
How do we want to present ourselves? Which posts are worth our effort and which aren’t? (We are also shaped to be economic beings.)
I would say all active users are marketing themselves. I suppose there are distinctly different ways of doing so, but marketing is a big one.
And it is exhausting! Well, to me it is, to have to think of how to present or market yourself online.
And then there is the culture that came to be, pushed by the social media interface/design and algorithms, in which posting daily or every other day seems to be the norm.
It may look cute on people’s feeds, but REALLY? Posting every (other) day has to be really impactful on your life. What does it do to one’s mind? My guess is that each time you experience something nice, the thought of posting it on socials pops up, and then that is where your attention goes. Because then the scene has to be captured in pictures and captures, and that takes time and effort, and it takes you out of the original experience. And even though it may be fun, it’s also kinda like work.
Then, after posting, all the followers can see what a great life one has. It may look spontaneous even, but please realise what is behind it. It is a carefully crafted online image. It may have taken a lot of time and effort to create and it takes an altered brain to keep it going. A brain altered by the use of social media.
The internet has become a gigantic mall
Recently I watched The Social Dilemma (highly recommended!) and I really love how someone in the documentary mentioned that the internet has become like a gigantic mall. This is especially true since people are increasingly exploring ways to make money online, for their main income stream or as a side stream. It seems like everything can potentially be monetized, in terms of either costs or income. This is an effect of our performance culture and our economic thinking, of course, but also of the many possibilities the internet and social media bring to the table.
With so many (small) businesses on socials and so many individuals starting to explore ways to monetize what they want to be doing in the world, to me it now even feels silly to use social media without having a specific goal in mind, without using it for money.
Using social media is like working. Many people do is as part of their work, and to me it doesn’t bring enough to just use as leisure, so to not at least use it partly for a bigger purpose.
Social media are like parasites
I myself would even like to state that social media are parasites. They suck up gigantic amounts of our attention, money from advertisers and everyone’s data. Instagram’s new terms of services go even further in owning your data, which is really creepy (as JP Sears comments on in his social media videos called Instagram‘s New Terms of Service – Not Sketchy at All!). They increasingly own everything you post and all data that comes through your use of socials, your use of the internet and all other data they can scrape off your devices. It is one of the scariest things in the world.
And of course along the way these companies outcompete all other initiatives and platforms so that other (small) businesses are basically dependent on social media for their visibility, so all the (advertisement) money flows into the socials. And they get to do whatever they want with it. (Legislation is far behind on this.)
And what do social media themselves even do to deserve that kind of money? I’d say it’s the users who make te platform, not the social media companies behind it. The companies only created and sustain the smooth infrastructure, right? They allow us all to create our profile and connect with our friends, which is great.
Then we get tricked into doing our very best to create the prettiest Instagram feeds, to put our artworks there, our best pictures, to rely on socials for our marketing, to put our social life out there… Without all these pretty things, our own creations, the beautiful landscapes and cultures, Instagram for one would be worthless.
So you could quite easily say that social media are parasitizing on our natural longings to connect with others, our endlessly creative minds, our lovely homes where we take our pictures, our holiday locations, on all our thoughts and experiences that we decide to put up there.
And Instagram then happily decides to own and monetize it all. Not very social, right?
So, does the role they play grant them permission to do what they want, barely without consent? I don’t think so.*
* I am vague here on what exactly social media are doing. I don’t know the details, but I’m sure they’re collecting more data than we all with they would, having more power and making more money too. Feel free to fill me in in the comments.
How do we move forward?
Yes, I clearly have a love/hate relationship with the socials. I like connecting with like-minded people, but somehow I wish we could go back to something simpler in which we don’t give away our power (attention, money, data) to some of the most powerful companies in the world that can do with it whatever they want.
So where does that leave me? I really don’t know. It has been a struggle since the beginning, and this year even more so due to the pandemic which made real life contact more difficult. Not being present on social media does really make it more difficult to connect with others.
So it seems that we cannot go back to a simpler (online) world of the past. We are in too deep. However, we can invent new ways to make the online world function better.
Therefore I want:
- that posting daily or every other day are NOT the norm. I think it is ridiculous to expect your ‘followers’ to see your posts so often. These followers of yours all have a life of their own, so you should treat them as if they do. It is not okay to post so often and I personally unfollow people who do. (I wrote about Quality vs. Quantity before – even before I was on Instagram.)
- for users to value their own attention and time and to then naturally limit their social media use. This is up to everyone, but it will benefit people if they realise what it does to them and how it does not bring real valuable things like (lasting) happiness.
- other ways for companies to show or market themselves so we are less dependent on the socials. We should invent other platforms where people can find businesses they can love, platforms that don’t rely on collecting so much data from their users and on capturing the attention of their users.
- that social media platforms are transparent about the algorithms they use and about their business models. They have become so big and central in our lives that they should take more responsibility.
- strict international legislation that protects our data and even our money flows. I would say these companies have been rewarded enough for their ‘revolutionary ideas’ and should now change into a mode of pure service, without predominantly using it/us for their own benefits.
Things I can personally do are:
- limiting my social media use through limiting the number of accounts I follow, how often I post and how often I log in.
- unfollowing accounts that annoy me or make me feel bad about myself, that post too often for me to be okay with, or that post fluff/to me unvaluable posts.
- instead of following every business or initiative I like, I can just keep a running list of businesss and initiatives to check out later or every once in a while, so not to forget them, like people would have done in the old days.
- limit the power of social media ads and campaigns by at least considering buying from companies that aren’t necessarily (big) on there, through finding other ways to find initiatives and companies, for example by asking friends for recommendations.
And now it’s your turn!
What do you think? Do you agree with my view of how social media currently rolls and with my vision for the future? Do you have recommendations for alternative uses of social media or of better platforms than the usual suspects? Do you have anything else to add?
Let me know in a comment!
Now I will temporarily remove Instagram from my phone and enjoy the first days of 2021 without checking it! I will aim for ten days (inspired by Sophie Carleen), with the exception that if write a blog post, I would want to share it… Oh, the struggle is real.
I wish you a happy new year! Don’t forget to forget your phone every once in a while.
PS I realise that I am bashing social media while writing ginormous blogs on here, and one can argue about such blogs too. But that’s for another post, or a comment if you want. 😉
PPS I did not add many sources. I may add some in later if I stumble upon them. For now I wished to post this on December 31 and I write for fun and practice, so I did not bother to make it more complete. So here is a little disclaimer! Let me know if you’re bothered, I may be able to mitigate some of it. 🙂