Ever looked up from your phone and wondered where the past 30 minutes have gone?
If so, you’re certainly not alone. According to Moment, a time-tracking app with more than 4.8 million users, the average person spends nearly four hours on their phone every day. That’s one-quarter of our waking lives, and much of that time is devoted to social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
But while we’re busy burying our noses in our newsfeeds, a strange thing is going on in Silicon Valley: tech insiders have begun to speak out against some of the very products they helped to create.
“I feel tremendous guilt… I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, last November during a talk at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He added that he himself rarely uses Facebook, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that sh*t”.
Social media “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” said Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, at an event in Philadelphia around the same time. “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Meanwhile, Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook has said that, when it comes to his nephew: “There are some things that I won’t allow. I don’t want them on a social network.”
So what do the social media executives know that we don’t? And what tricks do they use to keep us coming back for more, and more… and more?
The price of a like
First, we need to remember why social media companies would want to get us hooked in the first place. The market value of Facebook (which, it’s worth noting, also owns the popular social media platforms Instagram and WhatsApp) surpassed $500bn before the Cambridge Analytica row. But as anyone with an account knows, you don’t have to pay to use Facebook. It says so right on their home page: “It’s free and always will be.”
Those facts might sound contradictory, but they’re not. Facebook is free to use because we are not the customers. Instead, advertisers are the customers, and our attention is what’s being sold. Think about it: the more time you spend on a social media platform, the more opportunities there are for the platform to show you ads. Every minute you spend on social media is a minute spent making money for someone else.
It’s also a minute spent voluntarily providing data that can be collected and sold. As Antonio García Martínez, a former product manager at Facebook, writes in his memoir, Chaos Monkeys, the company is actually “the regulator of the biggest accumulation of personal data since DNA”. As well as recording and analysing our activities on Facebook itself, the social media company also collects data on many of our other online activities, and it even buys information from data collection companies…
This is an extract from issue 321 of BBC Focus magazine.
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