Social Media: Are Consumers Addicted to Algorithms?

The recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, points out how giant social media platforms have become an integral part of consumers’ lives and affect not only users’ habits but also influence human behaviour in both positive and negative ways. Consumers are spending much more time on Facebook, Twitter and other online social media accounts because they are hooked; this has lessened their attention span and is affecting their creative thinking. The Social Dilemma raises concerns that giant social media companies are making users addicted to their platforms by using algorithms; these companies have gone mainly unregulated up until now.

Social Media and Algorithms

In today’s world, Social Media companies control much of what goes on in this digital age. Internet users are becoming addicted to media platforms and hardly realize how much their behaviours and habits are being manipulated in this industry. Most consumers aren’t aware of just how much time they spend on social media and look at their smartphones daily. An example of this is in advertising, where companies measure how often users scroll through their apps, modifying their behaviour as they go; the companies can then tweak the feeds on each person to get the desired result to enhance their product. As Jaron Lanier points out in an article for The Guardian, “A bigger problem is that we are all carrying around devices that are suitable for mass behaviour modification.” Although social media giants like Facebook have denied claims made by the documentary, “The Social Dilemma” still raises concerns about algorithms’ harmful effects and tweaking consumer behaviors on social media platforms by these large companies. “The Social Dilemma” also raises concerns that social media companies are gaining financially by selling their platforms online and addicting consumers; this, in turn, gets people hooked and they are continually coming back to spend more time on their devices.

Figure 1, Source: The Verge Images

An example of this can be seen in the documentary. Teams of social media companies behind the scenes influence the fictional characters, increasing social interaction with the companies’ platform. By manipulating the character’s behaviours and habits, we can see how broad social media companies can use algorithms to maximize users’ addiction to their platforms. Another concern raised in the movie is how Facebook’s algorithms gather information about users. Sometimes personal information such as their political preferences provides users with fake news the individual agrees with. It has been proven that social media influences elections as well. Depression and suicide rates have gone up, creating a self-destructive reality we all share. As Michelle Gao argues in her article for CNBC, “If we go down the status quo for, let’s say, another 20 years, we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance.” Furthermore, we can see how the movie warns us of the negative consequences social media presents for a society addicted to smartphones and easily led by false information. Suppose these giant corporations continue to manipulate us with algorithms. In that case, we could be headed towards a dystopia where humans are consumed by spending time online and not fixing world problems that need to be dealt with. The documentary “The Social Dilemma” warns us that media companies out of control can cause negative consequences by addicting users to their platforms and ultimately create seeds of self-destruction.

Social Media and Consumers’ ‘Shared Reality’

Furthermore, the Social Dilemma presents fears that our society is becoming more reliant on tools like smartphones and computers; this leads to a breakdown of our ‘shared reality’ where people spend less time interacting face-to-face and more time on social media. During the current pandemic, more effective communication is needed to prevent the world from descending into a bureaucratic controlled society where large companies decide individuals’ behaviours and activities.

Figure 2, Source: Renew-Variety Images

People are dependent on their devices to talk with family members, friends, and businesses more than ever before; this, in turn, polarizes society and leads to large companies like Facebook controlling algorithms of individual’s behaviours and making huge profits. Evidence of this can be seen in the growing number of Facebook users who use the platform for connecting with friends, advertising businesses and reading the news. There are currently more than 1.79 billion people on Facebook; those users are worth a considerable amount of revenue for the company. Smartphones allow people to carry a computer in their pocket everywhere they go, and social media keeps users continually communicating with one another daily. However, this type of addiction can lead to problems like depression, lack of sleep and sometimes even suicide. The same type of chemical that humans get from eating delicious foods or doing anything satisfying is released in the brain when we check our smartphones for text messages or when someone tweets us and we respond. As Trevor Haynes claims in his blog, Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time, “Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.” People spend more time online checking their social media apps than talking to one another with face-to-face interactions. To summarize, social media companies like Facebook have an enormous influence on users’ behaviour patterns; The Social Dilemma movie warns us that these corporations could define our shared reality. We could lose fundamental communication abilities essential to human survival.

Social Media and Being ‘Socially Mindful’

Finally, the documentary suggests that people who consistently use social media can change their online habits and behaviours by being ‘socially mindful’ about what they are viewing; this makes it more difficult for large media companies to control consumers. The documentary, The Social Dilemma, emphasizes the problem of teenagers and adults continually being on their smartphones scrolling through Facebook or Instagram accounts. At the same time, companies use algorithms to manipulate the consumer’s behaviour patterns. In his article Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for your Time, Trevor Haynes points out that “adults in the US spend an average of 2–4 hours per day tapping, typing, and swiping on their devices — that adds up to over 2,600 daily touches. Most of us have become so intimately entwined with the digital lives that we sometimes feel our phones vibrating in our pockets when they aren’t even there.” There are some ways in which consumers can manage their social media time with regular time. One suggestion is to check online sources often and make sure the news they are receiving, either Facebook or Twitter, is reliable and well researched. Being more media literate is vitally important in today’s changing social media consumption world and makes us more careful about what we choose to look at online. Another method is for users to set limits on how much time they spend online and set specific time aside for family, friends and exercise. The more time people spend interacting face-to-face with others can lead to a healthier lifestyle and less psychological problems. Sometimes even going on a social media fast (not using their smartphones for a week or even two days) can help break the addiction. As The Social Dilemma illustrates, teenagers and adults unconsciously pick up their smartphones to check messages and emails almost regularly throughout the day; this, in turn, affects their thought patterns and lessens attention spans. Another method of managing online time is deleting unnecessary apps from our smartphones and disabling notifications from social media; constantly looking at our phones when we see a message takes up valuable time we could be spending constructively. Furthermore, social media platforms that use algorithms to modify our behaviour patterns don’t necessarily determine how we set up our social media accounts. If users customized their social media preferences on their phones to only allow feed from sources they control, there would be far less confusion from algorithms. Finally, having a hobby to spend time on is tremendously important for managing online addiction; by focusing on art, music, or even sports, people can develop lifelong skills that lead to better relationships and communication. Controlling our social media habit sends a message to large corporations that capitalism isn’t always in control and people can make their own choices. The Social Dilemma shows how necessary human qualities like face-to-face interaction and talking to each other are being lost in the age of social media; are we going to continue to allow these large companies to make us into computers? Perhaps consumers need to learn to turn off their smartphones and realize that a computer is ultimately just a tool like any other tool; we should dictate our lives, not our computers.

Conclusion

As discussed in this essay, people are addicted to social media platforms. Large companies need to be held accountable for manipulating consumers. These giant social media corporations have been using algorithms to control consumers’ behaviour patterns; regulation is needed now more than ever to keep a balance between online time and regular time. If users become more ‘socially mindful’ of their online habits, they are defying large social media companies and protecting their consumer rights. When we decide to pick up our smartphones, can we decide on how to spend our time more wisely in the age of social media?

-Richard

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