Thoughts on social media and data in 2021

I often think about how much of my personal information is ‘known’ by the big data companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon etc. Ordinarily I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at it but lately I’ve become conscious of how my information is used for such things as ‘advertising’.

Jaron Lainer (whose awesome book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Today I recently bought) introduced a concept to me from a video I saw of his on YouTube. His great contention is that there is no such thing as what we might call digital advertising in the traditional sense. Rather, it is manipulation. That is to say that the companies throw your information around and pass it through their algorithms to present appropriate adverts to you. Adverts that, of course, appear to follow your every movement. Wherever you go the cookies spin into action and fire up the algorithms such that you never seem to escape the damned things. This isn’t just presenting an advert from a selection of rotating adverts. This is a deliberate attempt to be ‘relevant’. No bad thing you may say? But it’s the principle of how your data is being used that intrigues me.

It’s a sobering thought.

But why should I care? Isn’t this just the way of the world these days? Aren’t we all just data subjects?

The cynic in me suggests that I should be very worried. My personal information is being used by global behemoths to generate enormous profits and I don’t see a penny of it. This bites hard.

We will get to a point I’m sure where we all just accept that we are data subjects carrying around personal data transponders that the biggest tech companies capitalise on every day. And worst of all, they do it while preaching to us that they will make our worlds better. That, as Facebook so eloquently puts it, will give us a ‘meaning’. Facebook’s great goal is to give us all a meaning, a purpose in life. A purpose that we don’t need to find for ourselves because they’ve already figured it out and we just need to subscribe.

Of course it’s possible to look at the data that these companies hold on you. You can delete it and delete your profiles on Google, Facebook, Twitter etc. But what then? Everyone else is using those sites / tools so where does that leave you? The outcast? Billy-no-mates? How can you possibly see Jimmy and Jane’s new house, new cat, beach holiday shots and what they ate for dinner last Saturday night?

But I would then ask myself just how important all of that is. Is it really something I ‘need’ in my life?

There is also the question of engagement.

I’ve heard it said a number of times that Facebook in particular loves a horror story. Bad news, controversial news is real news. Somebody posts something controversial that attracts a bunch of sad or angry responses – Facebook’s algorithms will push them in front of you far quicker than something that just attracts likes and happy faces. I don’t know how true this is but it makes sense.

These companies are controlling your emotions by playing on your addiction. And why? To give your life ‘purpose’. To give your life ‘meaning’.
We’re losing the art of maintaining healthy real world relationships. Relationships where conflicts are resolved with reasonable debate and where conversations take place between friends. We’re replacing this with throwaway clicks of an emoji and simple yet remarkably well considered typed responses.

Is this the world that I want for myself?

No. It isn’t. But what can I do? Everyone I know is on social media. Every I know has their data stored away some place in Palo Alto (probably). Everyone I know often refers to incidents or events with ‘did you see such-and-such’s post?’ Can I really walk away from that?

The world wide web for all its negativity has put me back in touch with some long lost and dear friends. We have busy lives. It’s nice to see what they’re up to and how their lives are playing out.

But again, here’s another question: how ‘real’ or ‘true’ is this? How much do we play with the perception of our existence? How many selfies did Jane take before she found the perfect one to share and make her profile picture and attract 143 likes and 7 hearts and countless ‘you look gorgeous hun’ comments? Is Jane really that happy? Well, she will be once she sees all those responses. Dopamine floods through her and lifts her to a temporary high. But, and it’s a big but, that dopamine rush is quick to fall and very addictive.

As The Wonderstuff once put it – Give give give, me, more more more…

We want more dopamine – more feel good. We want adoration and we want it on tap such that we can mask the inadequacies of real life. We walk around with these damned things that plug us in to this alternate world where pseudo happiness can be had for free and at the touch of a screen.

Is there any way back from this?

It has to come down to a personal decision and it’s a decision I’m very quickly warming to.

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