The Product is You: Why Many Trade Their Data for the Convenience of Social Media
With recent news that Twitter is considering a subscription model to counteract its dip in recent ad revenue due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and advertiser social media boycotts, for many it raises the question of ‘why’. Why has Twitter (and similar social media hubs) been free for so long? Why is the idea of a subscription fee, ubiquitous with the likes of everything from Netflix to Skillshare to Duolingo, only now seriously being considered for a website people spend hours scrolling through every day? The answer is fairly simple: you are the product. In the eyes of social media, the people who use their services to connect, learn, and share information are not users or customers. Instead, they are the product in which these companies can package the who, how, what, and why of to sell off to advertiser companies. Unfortunately, that status as a commodity, not a person, comes with a price:
Your Data as a Product
There is a long-standing joke that nobody reads the Terms of Service (ToS) when they sign up for something. After all, who has the time? It turns out, not many people do, as it’s estimated it would take 250 hours for someone to sit down and read every ToS they click through in order to use an online service. Unfortunately, agreeing to these digital contracts gives companies express permission to gather as much data about you as they can.
Ever wonder why you will start seeing ads on Facebook for cheap flights to Rome after you have browsed through Amazon for an Italian travel book? (Or, worryingly, after you’ve spoken to someone about wanting to see the Coliseum within hearing range of your phone?). Amazon and Google have been notorious about this for years, tracking your digital footprint along your online journey to feed you as many hyper-specific advertisement as they can to entice you to make a purchase you were already thinking about. However, those big names are simply the most well-known. Every company wants to collect your data to better target ads in pursuit of the almighty dollar. At the end of the day, that’s how these (supposedly) free services make money; no for-profit business exists out of the goodness of their hearts. If they are not charging you for a service, they are gathering every bit of information they possible can on you in order to turn around and sell it to the highest bidder.
Turning a Blind Eye for Convenience and Connection
As much as we may know how predatory social media can be, people have and will continue to agree to whatever Terms of Service they need to in the name of convenience and connection with the wider world. After all, social media is the go-to medium for human interaction. It offers a platform to instantly discover and share knowledge from around the world, allows for cheap communication for anyone with an internet connection, and allows people to connect at any hour of the day, unrestricted by geography or time. Why would someone want to cut themselves off from such a rich online world to explore? Or forgo forging new friendships? Or possibly turn away from an easy way to keep in touch with long-distance friends or family? That connection is even more important now as the world continues to grapple with the global COVID-19 pandemic keeping people at home and away from those they love. If the cost comes in the form of a few annoying ads here and there, then so what? The benefits far outweigh the risks, especially if you are already willingly posting so much personal information onto these sites.
Unfortunately, personalized data banks and targeted ads are not the only price to pay for convenience and connection. Social media has become a worryingly important hit of dopamine for society. They are optimized to trap users in feedback loops preying on one’s fear of missing out (or FOMO) and the instant gratification within notifications and good (or bad) social interaction. Social media is known to “leverage the very same circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.” Social media also perpetuates and promotes “doom scrolling”, doubling down on the addictive nature of bad news to keep users attached to their phones. This engineered experience is as designed; the longer someone spends scrolling and refreshing Twitter or Facebook, the more data these sites can siphon out of you, and the more money they can make off of you.
How to Protect Yourself
Short of never signing up for social media in the first place, there is not much you can do to completely wipe your personal data and information from the internet. (As the saying goes, “the internet is forever”). More importantly, it is virtually impossible to be completely disconnected from internet (and social media) in this day and age. However, there are a number of steps you can take to help lessen your digital footprint.
- Do not post personal information or share images that you would not want a complete stranger to see. For instance, your full name, pictures of your home, your passport and flight itinerary, or your children: unless you are okay with people outside of your circle seeing them.
- Diving into the privacy settings of your various social media accounts and turning off the sections you are not comfortable with. (Earlier this year, Facebook finally added the option to turn off data collection and sharing to third parties).
- Regularly signing out of websites and resetting your browser cookies periodically to make it harder (although not impossible) for third-parties to track you. Your go-to browser will generally also allow you to install extensions or add-ons that block ad trackers. They are not perfect, and will still show you ads, but they will not be targeted based on your browsing history. You can also turn off microphone and location services on your phone and computer. However, some apps will not work without these active.
- Installing a VPN service to mask your IP address. This, like all privacy options, isn’t foolproof, as not all VPN services are as trustworthy as others. However, it is yet another way to give yourself the tools to protect your online identity, and in conjunction with these and other tips, will leave you better off than those who do without.
Realistically, very few people will truly leave (or avoid) social media to protect themselves and their data from the legions of companies who have more money than sense. Although, by understanding your place as a product instead of a user, and taking pre-emptive steps to make data collection harder, you can engage with social media with your eyes wide open and the pros and cons suitably weighed.