The old cliche “You get what you pay for” doesn’t always apply, but it usually does. The things we value typically come at a price because things worth having require effort to produce, use, and maintain. This is as true for physical products like laptops and refrigerators as it is for services like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
The current debate surrounding the deplatforming of Infowars demonstrates how wrong we’ve been to accept the services our social media platforms provide free of charge. In hindsight, we should have known that the ability to communicate and develop online relationships with people on the other side of the globe was going to come at a cost — even if that cost turned out to be more hidden than the usual direct hit to our wallets.
We are finally beginning to realize that we, the users of these platforms, were the product all along. The companies that developed the online services we use have to make money somehow. Collecting massive amounts of data that can be shared with advertisers and political campaigns is a pretty good business. (Unfortunately, it’s also amoral.)
When what is being mined is information about a platform’s users, it doesn’t matter if those users are clicking on fake news and nutty conspiracy theories or New York Times articles and science podcasts. The point is to gather the most information possible about the population by whatever means necessary and amplify exposure to the identified preferences. This includes vacuuming up all our weird searches and documenting our often unconscious bias for instantly gratifying, if frequently unedifying, content.
Madison Avenue knew that sex and other provocative messages moved merchandise long before social media came along. An internet consisting largely of free online services algorithmically amplifying our worst tendencies is an efficient delivery vehicle. When users are given the choice between a free TED talk and a free video depicting a guy shouting crazy theories into a microphone, the latter enjoys a disproportionate competitive advantage.
This should come as no surprise to those familiar with evolutionary biology. Alex Jones is the information age equivalent of the guy on the savannah shouting about a hungry lion lurking in the grass. The best TED lecture is like a story being told about a lion to a group sitting safely around the campfire.
Our current social media environment emerged as we were just beginning to explore the possibilities of the internet. As a result, it developed in an ad hoc fashion.
While everyone finds it difficult to resist the so-called clickbait, that doesn’t mean we won’t discover that the internet equivalent of the old campfire stories is far more satisfying in the end. We shouldn’t conclude that our innate tendency to gravitate toward instant gratification is evidence we find said gratification more meaningful in the long run.
Our current social media environment emerged as we were just beginning to explore the possibilities of the internet. As a result, it developed in an ad hoc fashion. Young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg were playful experimenters with a technology whose reach and power they couldn’t have foreseen. When Zuckerberg and his college roommate Eduardo Saverin created their social network, it was intended to extend no further than their fellow Harvard classmates.
But now Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media have achieved a scale and breadth that poses a threat to the very democratic institutions that gave them room to emerge in the first place. These services are freely available to anyone with access to a computer and a few dollars to give to an internet service provider each month.
This fact distinguishes social media networks from the books that entered mass production after Gutenberg invented his printing press in the 15th century. While books became considerably cheaper and more readily available in the decades that followed Gutenberg’s creation, they still required financial investment and a fair amount of time. Social media is a time suck, but the way it consumes our spare hours and attention is more fragmented.
Smartphone technology means we can easily engage with social media and other websites while waiting for our morning coffee, whereas a book requires us to commit to a degree of solitude and concentration. In addition, books and other nonelectronic forms of the written word don’t demand an immediate response. They are mediums that come with time to reflect and absorb their contents provided as byproducts of the technology.