Monetizing Fear of Missing Out: A Take On Social Media’s Business Model

By Ghazal Bhootra, BBA, Batch of 2024, NMIMS Kirit P. Mehta School of Law, Mumbai.

How do you get out of a matrix that you don’t know you are in?

An average human taps, swipes, and clicks on their phone 2,617 times a day. If that statistic isn’t a testament to where we are heading as a society, I don’t know what else is. Social media is ruining our lives. This isn’t something only our mothers say to us, it’s the truth. Infinite scrolling and push notifications have kept us glued to our screens, so much so that we haven’t had the time to take a step back and look at how social media has changed our lives in a negative way, just in the past decade.

We are living in a dystopian world. Companies can now calculate every move we make. Our data is being collected, analyzed, and used against us in ways we couldn’t have imagined 5 years ago. Every application on your phone is fighting to get your attention. Algorithms can record what you look at, what you are watching and even how long you are watching it for. Then this algorithm predicts what you will be interested in.

Social media platforms have a business model that trades human futures. They make us look at advertisements that will be based on information we feed into it. Each impression of an advertisement generates revenue. We are put into social labels. For instance, if a person likes watching sports videos, your next advertisement, a gym membership. If you like reading books, your next advertisement, a flashlight that helps you read at night. If you are a rightist, advertisements from right wing political parties to vote for them. Predicting where your attention will go to next is being sold by social media.

But this is not the worst problem of social media. Here is the worst part. Social media can influence your actions and turn you into an easy prey for propaganda. In a 2016 study called “An Audience of One: Behaviorally Targeted Ads as Implied Social Labels”, the researchers explored how targeted advertisements that put you into a social label, for instance, a conspiracy theorist, and can influence you to take decisions including purchase intentions, that are related to that implied label. This is a by-product of social media.

If you subscribe to a particular type of people, groups, links, and pages, you can easily be manipulated by these advertisements and posts to think what they think, like what they like, and buy what they want you to buy; one impression at a time.

Now this isn’t a conspiracy theory, or a look into the future of what social media will be like. This is what is currently happening to us. “Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people,” says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. Anna Lembke, an addiction expert at Stanford University, points out that these companies exploit the brain’s evolutionary need for interpersonal connection. Moreover, Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, makes a frightening allegation — “Russia didn’t hack Facebook; it simply used the platform”. This platform is giving the entire world access to influencing people, even 1% of their cognitive ability with an idea they want to implant. Sounds like a Christopher Nolan movie plot. Let’s put this into perspective, there are 3.80 billion people on social media right now. So, 3.80 billion people are perceptible and vulnerable to anyone who is willing to pay the price of an advertisement on these platforms.

This has brought up some issues that we couldn’t even have imagined would rise to this scale. Polarization, riots, violent protests for the wrong causes, and on another spectrum, body dysmorphia, self-image issues, and addictions to name a few. This bubble that we’re in is taking our attention away from issues that require our urgent attention, climate change for instance. We’ve become zombies, our opinions now prone to anyone who can pay for what social media will show us next and it is concerning because we spend 10 hours of our day on our phones. There is a need for the big tech companies to respect our attention and minimize these manipulations that are so embedded in their esurient race to make profit.

Social media can make anything trend, most importantly and the worst of all, fake news. A piece of fake news on social media spreads like wildfire. It spreads 6 times faster than real news.

Imagine that for a second, a world where no one knows what is fake and what is real but only what is trending. Now, take a look at the negative side of this. Anyone who wants to spread fake news and use that to their advantage and make even 5% of the 3.80 billion people believe in it, can create absolute havoc.

Take the example of the current situation. There are insane amounts of fake news available on the coronavirus. Some even believed Whatsapp messages that said eating Chinese food would give you coronavirus. On 15th April, 2020, thousands of migrant workers assembled at a railway station because of one piece of fake news that told them they would get to go home. We emerged from chaos and we’re going right back into it. Governments can be destabilized with this technology, civil wars can be started, democracy can be hacked and the entire fabric of society can crumble.

I’m not here to tell you that we should ban social media. There are two sides of every coin. Social media has brought benefits to society. We can even go as far to say that social media might have been the reason that we survived this pandemic. It has made e-learning and working from home possible and a multitude of knowledge now available online. Maybe the reason you are reading this article is also only due to the fact that you found it online.

Having said that, we can’t reverse the fact that it has made us into constantly insecure and vulnerable human beings that function on numbers. Numbers of likes, followers, and viewers. Nor can we reverse the fact that artificial intelligence and machine learning is evolving at a rate faster than that of the human brain. The day when it passes human strengths might not be here yet, but the day when it has learned how to take advantage of human weaknesses is certainly here.

What once seemed like a utopian promise of connection to anyone far away has been divulged to burn through our data and attention and emotional stability for profit. But it doesn’t need to be this way. In the short term, there needs to be better governance and better laws about how data is collected and advertisements are shown. We can also enact data taxes, to make sure companies have a financial incentive to stop collecting as much data as is being collected by them.

In the long term though, this won’t be enough. We need to imagine a better internet. An internet that doesn’t make us think that it’s do-or-die if we don’t answer an email or a notification or check our phone every 10 minutes.

This isn’t something we can change as individuals but it can be something we can ask for from institutions that design the entire array of products that monetize our vulnerabilities and time. Better design in user interfaces to make sure we’re putting temptations away when we’re trying to accomplish goals. How about one digest of notifications at a time instead of one notification in every 2 minutes that wastes user time? It is a giant shift, but wasn’t social media as we see it today a giant shift too?

In case you still think that this isn’t an immediate need for our society, I have checked my phone at least 15 times while writing this article, and you probably have checked your phone or at least thought of it while reading this article.

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