3 Unspoken Truths Of Social Media Nobody Wants To Acknowledge
We all have that friend who hates social media. They make a big deal about how they deleted their Facebook in 2010, and they have only three photos on their Instagram grid. If anyone brings up something that happened on TikTok, this luddite sage will sport a condescending smirk and talk about how TikTok is basically spyware. They can rattle off ways their lives are better since they deleted Twitter, but if you ever ask one of them why it’s bad to give your data to corporations, you’re probably going to get a half-baked answer.
"Do you really trust Facebook with your photos of dinner? You know, TikTok shouldn’t be able to tell when you’re going through a breakup because … I dunno, that’s creepy!" At some point they’ll play their trump card: All of this surveillance will Big Brotherize Government.
Sure, maybe someday the government will have its shit together enough to team up with Reddit and lock up every last brony, but this argument always falls a little flat. It just doesn't seem that scary. And your friend in the tinfoil hat is wrong to think this is the big problem with giving your info to social media companies.
The real threat from social media is much, much worse.
Why Social Media Companies Really Want Your Data
Somewhere deep in the databases of Facebook, there’s a profile of what you enjoy. Maybe you’re a little bit horse girl, a dollop of Magic: The Gathering, and a smattering of guilt-induced workout videos. Maybe that’s just me. Even if you deleted your profile, Facebook still knows what you like. And so does Instagram. Heck, the point of TikTok is figuring out what you like. But why?
The short answer is always the same: to serve you ads! Common knowledge says it’s to serve you better ads. You like the Washington Football Team, you get a lot of ads with big gold W’s in them. You love board games, you’ve seen ads for Pandemic (sorry). And it’s hard to be too upset about that. No one wants to see bad ads. Better ads are just better, right?
Right! And better ads wouldn’t be so bad ... if that’s actually why tech companies wanted your data. But that’s only half the battle. The other half is serving you more ads.
Serving more ads has been a problem for about 200 years now. Once you start being paid with ads, it’s tempting to cram as many as you can into whatever you’re advertising through and rake in those sweet sellout dineros. But if you put too many ads, people will stop seeking out your media (because we all hate ads). So for decades, marketing teams and algorithms have been trying to figure out exactly what density of ads they can show you without driving you away.
If you want to show people more ads (as all social media companies do), then you’ve really only got one option. You can’t show people tons of ads all the time or they’ll leave. You can only show them so many new ads every second they’re on your website. So you have to keep them on your website for as long as you can, to show them as many ads as you can.
And that’s where your horse girl profile comes into play. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok—all social media sites are trying to show you content that will make you spend just another second scrolling, liking, or (even better) commenting. They’re all looking to send you the perfect push notification to get you to look at their site for just one more minute every day. Facebook’s ultimate plan isn’t to work with the government to make a dystopian future. Their big grand scheme is to get you to spend more time on Facebook so Facebook can make more money. It’s as simple as that.
Why More Social Media Is Bad
Oooooh. Spooky reveal, Cracked. Websites want me to stay online! Wow, I had no idea! So I spend another hour a day looking at otters. It’s not that bad.
As more and more people are accepting, it is actually really bad. Really really bad. Social Media use has been linked to depression so often, I found a different paper for every word in this sentence. There’s absolutely no debate anymore that addictive social media use leads to increased loneliness, depression, lower self-esteem, and greater knowledge of what your high school classmates are up to. Even if you've never seen one of those studies, we still all know it's true, so much that jokes about it go viral (viral on social media).
So I won’t spend more time telling you about social media depression. Instead let's just talk a little about screen time in general.
When you look at a bright screen, three areas of your brain essentially turn off: the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the medial temporal lobe. Sure, lobes and cortices sound important in their own right, but these particular parts of your brain are important for things like autobiographical memory (like, remembering your life), theory of mind (which is basically empathizing and sympathizing), and self-referential processing. That last one might sound technical and hokey but it’s literally your ability to craft a coherent sense of self. It’s what makes you feel like you to you. What makes you a person in your own mind.
Do you ever get to the end of a day and wonder what the heck you even did since you woke up? Do large swaths of your life feel empty, like nothing happened? Are you less sure of who you are now than you were three years ago? Yeah, well a lot of that can be chalked up to the amount of time you spend looking at screens every day.
So it may not sound that bad that you’re spending a few extra hours online, but it’s essentially making you feel worse and worse all the time because it's removing chunks of your life completely. Yikes. Kinda wish Facebook would just team up with the government instead.
But if I know this and now you know this, surely the people who work at social media companies know this and will fix things, right?
The Incentives To Fix This Are All Screwed Up
Let’s go back to talking about ads. For social media sites, serving ads is their job, and letting people chitchat is their hobby. As you may have noticed, social media is very good at its job. Investors have certainly noticed, and even with tons of controversies, stock in social media sites remains very valuable.
Because almost all of these companies are publicly traded, they’re beholden to investors. And modern investors care about one thing and one thing only: growth. It doesn’t matter if you make a billion dollars a day—if you’re not making more this year than you were last year, investors will absolutely hate you. All public companies are constantly chasing growth to brag about to their board and make themselves more appealing to investors. For social media sites, growth means more revenue and fundamentally revenue is this:
Users * Ads per Second * Cost of Ad * Average Time on Site
Look at that formula and imagine your job is to make one of those numbers go up every year. For a while you can coast on getting more and more users, but for companies the size of Facebook, Twitter, and now TikTok, that’s harder and harder to do. We already talked about how more ads per second means people will leave your site, so you can’t go too crazy on that one. Sometimes a company will raise the cost of advertising, but that’s another place where if you raise the price too high you end up with no one running ads on your service because they can advertise more cheaply somewhere else.
But average time on site costs you very little, when you're a social media site and pay nothing for your content. Sure, it’s hard to get people to stay on longer, but if you can get every user to spend just 2% more time on your app than they did last year, that’s 2% growth all by itself. And all you need is one good push notification, a little more horse girl in the feed, maybe a string of otter videos, and all of sudden your stock price goes up by a dollar. Or two. Or a hundred.
How do they get you to look at your phone more? By knowing more about you. Taste profiles, like I mentioned above, are a big part of it. A/B testing, essentially millions of little experiments to find out what people like, means that social sites are always getting better in a lot of little ways. And of course there’s massive computing power working constantly to figure out what content will get the most engagement, all to get you to spend more time scrolling and seeing ads. And what do you have defending you from that? A single squishy brain that gets a dopamine hit if I just whisper the word notification.
Of course, people aren’t choosing to work at Facebook and Snapchat and all of them in order to make your life worse. They just want a paycheck, and a nice job with benefits. And so they can do that, sure, maybe some teens feel a whole lot worse about themselves. And the company will make small modifications and try to help in little ways, but the one thing they’ll never ever do is make less money just to make users feel better.
Maybe you’re reading this and imagining I’m talking about other people. You might think you’re pretty good at not spending too much time on your phone, but on the whole social media sites are winning. We’re spending, on average, 1,300 hours online a year. That’s 54 straight, no-sleep days. That means about thirty percent of your waking hours are spent on social media. And in order for these companies to keep making more money, that number is only going to go up.
The richest corporations in history are using the best computer technology money can buy in an arms race to get you to spend less time living your life and more time looking at their apps. Happy Halloween!
Top image: God & Man