Social networks are like wholesale markets selling human goods. We expose ourselves as products on public stalls, we beautify and sprinkle ourselves to appear more fresh and appealing, more attractive to potential buyers.
As any type of goods, the shelf-life is limited, tomorrow we have to arrange our stalls with fresh and tasty goods if we want to get someone's eyeballs. Try to sell healthy and organic apples, sour-taste and vulnerable, worm-eaten and beaten. No one buys that any more...
Give them something nice and cheap - they'll all love it. If you are lucky enough to have a queue in front of your stall, where everybody starts liking, touching, commenting and tasting your goods, there's a good day's sell. Leave your dirty laundry at home, bring only sweet and tasty apples. Infuse it with a speck of hormones, inject preservatives to last longer.
As with courtship and falling in love, we project a fake image of our ideal selves in order to be liked by others. It is an innate human need to be accepted by our surroundings. It is an everlasting desire, the only thing that changed were its distribution channels.
Those of you who belong to older generations remember analogue times when journals and diaries used to be kept. Remember those questions "What do you think about XYZ?". Followed by comments great friend, best friend forever - BFF, etc. Today's kids may find it funny, but those journals were forerunners of social networks.
And it worked pretty well until a Mark got bored in his dorm and came up with the idea of online journals which were to turn later into Facebook, the largest community in the history of mankind. If only he had listened to his mother, saying: "Stop chatting Mark, for Christ's sake"
Nowadays, social networks are inseparable parts of our lives. They are used as legitimate instruments for communication, entertainment, sharing of information, making acquaintances, even for establishing business relations. Nevertheless, there is something universal there, which hasn't changed for ages.
Dunbar's number and social networks
Dunbar's number (150) got its name after the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. It represents a cognitive limit to the number of people we can have meaningful social relationships with.
Throughout the history, this number remained more or less unaltered. From the ancient forager communities consisting of up to 150 members, to the average number of our Facebook friends.
The question is what exactly meaningful relationships mean. They cannot be high-quality, all of them. But when you come to think of it, it is indeed a maximum limit of people we can consider our acquaintances, certainly not our friends.
As already mentioned, people need to feel accepted by their peers. Social networks have enabled a very effective way to make that acceptance visible to profile owners as well as to their friends.
It has been made possible owing to validation of our posts by way of likes, comments and emoticons. In that way, we get social approval or acceptance by other people, which is a powerful ego-booster that normally makes us happy. Unfortunately, a lack of such validation makes us miserable and depressed. Especially when we are trying to compare ourselves to others who also display embellished images of their own lives.
It is particularly troublesome with adolescents and young people, where such lack of validation may cause anxiety, depression and a sense of depleted self-respect. Try to remember how delicate we were in that age and sensitive to the comments related to our physical appearance, behaviour, intelligence.
Cyberbullying is a topic that deserves a text of its own, that people are pretty familiar with, so we will skip it for the time being.
Social networks as slot machines
Every time we open a social network app, a happiness hormone is excreted (dopamine), in anticipation of the uncertainty awaiting us. Uncertainty as to whether there are any new likes, comments or reactions to our posts. Tristan Harris says that the effect is similar to that produced by gambling.
Just like a slot machine, any time we click, we stand in trepidation before the outcome, whereas the gain in this instance is the reaction of our online friends. It creates addiction and compulsive drive to frequently check our profiles and posts.
The moment we feel low, we rush to our Face/Insta accounts to get our shots of likes and comments. And we keep lying to be happy, only to be accepted. Honestly, what was the last time you had seen someone posting a nasty detail about his/her personal life on social networks?
We have set up our fairy-tale backdrops, to quote those smarter than me...
Instagram is testing an option in Australia of hiding likes in an attempt to increase the traffic of regular users.
They have noticed that people started losing interest as their posts failed to reach significant number of users, since almost the entire influence is held by a small caste of people with great impact on social networks - so-called influencers.
We are yet to see the results. If they manage to discourage influencers as well, they are doomed. Because influencers raise the rating of the social network itself.
(Ab)use of social networks
Apart from the above mentioned, there are some dark designs of social networks as well. The trouble is that "social networks, more precisely their algorithms, know us better than we know ourselves" (quote: Yuval Noah Harari).
In a 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Private Traits and Attributes Are Predictable from Digital Records of Human Behavior,” scientists from the University of Cambridge and Microsoft Research were able to combine data on Facebook “Likes” and limited survey information to determine the following:
They could accurately predict a user’s sexual orientation 88% of the time for men and 75% for women; predict a user’s ethnic origin (95%) and gender (93%) with a high degree of accuracy; and predict whether a user was Christian or Muslim (82%), a Democrat or Republican (85%), or used alcohol, drugs or cigarettes (between 65% and 75%), or was in a relationship (67%).
This case became popular owing to the scandal with Cambridge Analytics which abused these findings in order to impact the outcome of the US 2016 presidential elections when Trump won due to successful campaign on social media, primarily Facebook.
The opportunities for such abuse are virtually unlimited, although Zuckerberg and his crew are doing their best, in the wake of his Congress hearing, to limit and mitigate the risk of personal data being abused.
Europe is trying to control it through GDPR, which you can learn more about by following this link.
However, it seems that the goal of these regulations is to restrict the rights of advertisers, i.e. the people who pay to Facebook. Facebook and its owners still remain intact.
Confirmation bias and cultural tribalism
This type of logical fallacy (confirmation bias) or error in reasoning was addressed in the text about fake news, so I will avoid repeating myself. What is typical about our behaviour on social networks is that it just additionally fuels our biases.
We naturally and consciously expose ourselves to agreeable contents which support our long-held views and beliefs. That's why we read our friends' posts, or the pages advocating the calls we stand for.
It fosters cultural tribalism which reflects human behaviour in prehistoric communities and is a sort of archetypal human need for building own social nucleus.
However, social networks are double-edged swords. Although convenient, as we can fine-tune their settings, in terms of pre-defining the content we are open for, it can be seen as harmful as well.
For a simple reason that it traps us in a bubble where everything feels just right and we are pretty reluctant to leave such comfort zones.
Thus we become closed for different opinions, different ideas and concepts. Psychology defines this effect as the echo chamber. (We move in our single-minded circles which provide additional arguments for remaining fixed in our positions, no matter how deviant such positions could be.
How to explain otherwise zealous Facebook groups such as flat-earth society and anti-vaccine communities. They contravene logic and common sense, but their members usually remain firm in their stands to compensate for the lack of arguments. They feed their subjectivity with unverified information and pseudo-scientific evidence.
That's why we should remain cautious and check out the views of our opponents from time to time. It seems that due to virtual communication that we use all too often, we have forgotten the ancient skills of a dialogue and an exchange of different views.
It is a forgotten art which typically produces the best results. Groupthink and intellectual cocoons only blur our vision.
Polarizing discussions and attention economy
Politicians and marketeers alike are well aware that controversies spark the largest interest. The discussions on topics which divide sides are the most intriguing ones (e.g. euthanasia, LGBT activism, male-female relationships, religion, politics, etc.). It is deftly used on social networks as well.
People who live of the Internet and social networks have one goal - to have their announcements seen by as many visitors as possible which helps them become viral.
That's why they often castclickbaits, in a form of appealing headlines that are hard to resist. People then start having heated debates in the comment section, often on the verge of rude insults, and the authors of posts eagerly welcome such an outcome.
The traffic grows, the number of hits sky-rockets, and the authors thus build up their brand, product, page, whatever. We are completely unaware how manipulated we become.
Our attention and engagement is their goods, it sells well in the attention economy that will be discussed in greater detail in one of the following texts.
So, think carefully next time you leave your comment in such a debate. Those who think otherwise will remain immune to your view, they will seek a confirmation within their peer groups. The only ones to profit will be the hustlers, those who prompted such debates. They get all the attention and attention is the currency successfully traded in nowadays.
Social networks as money-making machines
Facebook has long ceased being just a social network for connecting people. It is currently, along with Google, one of the largest sales and marketing platforms generating billions of dollars from ads and promotions. The same applies to Instagram which is their affiliate.
Thanks to your engagement (posting statuses, likes, comments) the algorithms and artificial intelligence record precisely user behaviour and distribute such information further to marketeers and advertisers. They in turn pay to Facebook for the advertisements aimed at narrowly defined target groups.
Never before has marketing had such a good and convenient tool for finding potential customers (leads). Something that once required a lot of market research, surveys, focus groups and loads of cash, is now just a click away. Provided that you know what you are doing.
Facebook advertising is a real science and not everyone can be successful. Huge budgets are allocated for the promotion of products and services and the rates are determined subject to the frequency of the keyword, its commercial value but also the market development level.
For instance, if you advertise a famous designer brand in the US, Facebook or Instagram ad will be charged scores of times higher than in Serbia. It makes sense, our market is far smaller, e-commerce still underdeveloped, let alone the purchase power.
Networks should be social and people understanding and compassionate
To avoid being paranoid, although social networks hide numerous threats, if used moderately and adequately, they can be more than useful tools. They are a perfect instrument for connection, making acquaintances, for social activism, keeping track with various fields of interest, promotion of business, various hobbies and skills, entertainment, education...
However, if used inappropriately, they can lead to addiction and sleep disorders, disappointments and emotional trauma, anxiety and aggression, entrenched views, asocial behaviour, depression and apathy.
The choice is yours, make use of what you think is best for you and stay alert to all the traps and challenges along the way. Make sure that the choice you make is authentically yours!