In 2010, The Social Network was released, a film based on Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of “Facebook”. Originally branded ‘thefacebook’ it was intended as a platform through which Harvard students could connect. One of its main innovations was the so-called ‘Wall’ upon which you could share your opinions, thoughts and day-to-day goings-on for all your virtual friends to see. Now, ten years later, the number of Facebook users has increased by 512% and the company owns Whatsapp, Messenger and Instagram. The sheer scale of their corporate dominion demonstrates the clear proliferation of social media usage over the decade.
In 2020, The Social Dilemma was released, which didn’t exactly celebrate online social integration but instead gave us a warning. The world has gone virtual in what is being called the ‘death of reality’. The digital universe offered on screen is seen as a refuge from the brutal conflict outside our doors. On an average day, social media users spent an average of 2 hours and 24 minutes browsing, chatting, scrolling. Over the past decade, platforms have updated and optimised to become as addictive as possible. “Snapchat”, for example, introduced streaks (the number of consecutive days you’ve been chatting to a friend) to encourage daily usage. All platforms have a way to publicly like, retweet or share posts. When you receive this engagement with your photo or thought through a notification, you get a drug-like surge of dopamine. American statistician Edward Tufte has highlighted that there are, “only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software”. These online apps depend on their addictive attributes to motivate usage. The Social Dilemma showed that social media platforms are marketing human attention as a commodity to advertisers. The more attention you give a platform, the more advertisers will pay for you to see their product. The algorithms that select what adverts you see are now so advanced that they have in-built self-optimisation software so that, like humans, they can learn from your viewing to achieve a more successful future sales strategy. It is therefore the goal of these platforms to do whatever it takes to keep us engaged.
What better way to do this than to exploit our fundamental human nature. Narcissism is a prime example: Today, 1000 selfies are posted on Instagram every second. Behind each of these selfies is about an hour of getting the perfect angle, background and filter to show your friends. The visual nature of social media has meant that the profiles of good-looking people naturally garner the lion’s share of attention. This correlation is becoming increasingly prevalent and lots of users, especially young millennials, are noticing it. Whilst the now defunct “Vine” was the first short video hosting platform, “TikTok”, a platform consisting of ‘video loops’, took advantage of the empty playing field and skyrocketed in popularity. Although there is some comedic or informative content, the platform is cluttered with sexual dances and beauty videos. When scrolling through content we are tempted to look longer at aesthetically pleasing posts, so this trend is the perfect way to capture an audience. The most alarming part is that just under half of “TikTok” users are 14-16 years old. With narcissism comes an increased obsession with fashion, and, surprise, surprise, social media has monopolised this market opportunity as well. Platforms like “Depop” and “Facebook Marketplace” provide online shopping through social media with targeted ads to increase sales. Even while searching for a product on Google you will receive tailored results based on your previous search history, or even based on the length of time that you linger on certain posts or links. More manipulation techniques have been introduced, such as updates where the marketplace icon is switched with the notifications icon, so that you accidentally go onto the market page when clicking to look at your likes.
Increased narcissism has been termed ‘a modern pandemic’ that has fuelled social media usage over the past decade. But another, more obvious one has also gone viral. Covid-19 has sparked a flood of virtual activity. Over a third of the global population used “Facebook” to find, discuss, and share information about the coronavirus over the past year. The virus has increased uncertainty, which has further increased the need for media. However, whilst online social media has benefitted, traditional forms have suffered. Reports show that US newspapers face an ‘extinction level-crisis as Covid hits hard’, with more demanding a subscription fee to access content as advertising revenue decreases. Yet there is still hope for these publications, with 54% saying they will miss their local newspaper a lot if it goes. This hope is reflected by the rise in ‘fake news’ over the past few years, which highlights the need for traditional outlets. Fake news marks the launch of sophisticated information-warfare, where social media is used to spread disinformation using encrypted ‘bots’. “Facebook” has revealed that 126 million Americans were exposed to fake news released by Russian agents during the 2016 presidential election, with both Trump and Clinton sharing fake news disseminated by bots. This year fake news has returned, with a particular focus on ballot-counting. Trump has again used fake news to his advantage in support of his campaign to deem mail votes invalid.
However, the further evolution of social media platforms is threatened by privacy concerns, as highlighted by the “Cambridge Analytica” scandal, and US federal antitrust lawsuits against “Facebook” are already challenging further developments, such as the buying of competitor platforms and sharing of personal data. In 2018 “Facebook” enabled “Cambridge Analytica! to harvest data from 50 million users without their consent. Brittany Kaiser, former business development director at “Cambridge Analytica!, said that the company had interfered with elections in ‘at least’ 68 countries, using disinformation tactics that were also used in the Brexit referendum. Kaiser argues that “we will continue to see “Facebook” profit off the erosion of our freedoms” if no regulation measures are implemented.
The future of social media is uncertain. This decade we have watched it evolve at a phenomenal rate that human evolution cannot hope to keep up with. Now the danger of this has been recognised, tech giants are motivated to both harness and neutralise this powerful medium before it does further damage.