The First Principle of Social Media Use: Know the game
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
Most tech companies sell your eye-balls. Not your actual eye-balls (this isn’t Minority Report), but your attention.
Google, facebook, snapchat, instagram, youtube, CNN, weather.com, all of these places want you to use their services. They want you to watch videos, leave comments, read stories, and look at pictures. But ever notice how you never pay these places?
That’s odd, isn’t it? How does a business that doesn’t charge for their products make money?
The truth is that the businesses do charge for their products. However, their products are not their platforms. Facebook news feeds, instastories, snap stories, youtube videos- these are not the products of tech companies, they are the platforms.
You, my dear reader, are the product. Or, more specifically, your attention is the product.
Social media, like most forms of modern media, are funded by advertising. This advertising is more lucrative than most traditional forms of advertising, because it’s highly targeted. Every like, comment, piece of profile information, and bit of browsing history is tagged, stored, and catalogued by tech companies to build a behavioral profile of you. How accurate is this profile you ask?
Accurate enough that if you switched devices, created new profiles, and started your online footprint over from scratch, the major tech companies like google, facebook, and other major advertising online databanks would know who you were within three to five days. Your behavior profile and personal information is incredibly valuable to these companies, because it allows them to sell ads to other companies that are tailored specifically to people like you.
The companies that want to advertise to you will pay the large tech firms and online data companies good money to get ads in front of you. Each time you see an ad, the website that the ad appears on gets paid to show you that ad. That’s how “free” websites like Instagram work- they sell other companies the right to show ads that are designed to appeal to people like you.
Okay, you may be thinking by this point, I already knew this.
Most people already know that large tech companies are collecting their data to sell them ads. What they fail to realize is the concept that you, the user, are these companies product. The ramifications of this are important, because if companies can sell your attention, then the more attention that they get, the more they can sell. Experts call this the attention economy.
Think of it this way: the goal of most businesses is to grow revenue (to make more money next year than the year before). For a while, web companies did this by getting more people online. But we’ve pretty much maxed out internet users. Those who are going to get into the game, are in the game. So you want to continue to grow revenue, what options do you have?
· Increase price
· Increase users (from other sites)
· Increase time users spend on your sites
The third is by far the easiest. Companies like snapchat, google, and facebook pay large amounts of money to behavior scientists, psychologists, AI programmers, and old fashion advertising experts to find ways to get you to spend more time and attention on their platforms. They do this in a number of ways, the most common are infinity pools, behavior algorithms, inciting outrage, and playing on desire.
Ever notice how you never get to the bottom of the page on facebook, instagram, or snapchat? There’s always more feed to scroll through, links to click on, or (if you’re playing a video game) side quests to run down. These are called infinity pools, and they play on our natural human tendency to be curious and explore. Companies use infinity pools to grab your time and attention without you realizing how much you have spent, because in your mind, you’re still discovering more data, not spending time trying to get to the bottom of an infinity pool.
Ever get some fantastic youtube recommendations and spend hours watching videos about experts theorizing how a Star Destroyer would fair against the UNSC Pillar of Autumn in a fictional spaceship fight? Just me? Okay. Well if you have had that experience (or a similar one), you have fallen victim to a behavior algorithm. A computer program has just used all your personal info that we discussed earlier to predict what kind of content would most likely grab your attention and allow you to be shown more ads. Youtube is a brutally effective example of this, and the reason why it is the most popular social media platform at the moment.
Outrage and desire are two other ways that companies can manipulate you to spending more time on their platforms. We are naturally interested in things that make us emotional, either positively or negatively. Media companies have known this for centuries (if it bleeds, it leads after all), and, in a modern sense, this is why you see certain stories (whether true or not) go viral.
Next week, we’ll talk about how you can counter some of these strategies to make yourself less manipulatable.
Again, the goal of this series is not to have you never spend any time on the internet. The goal is to make sure the time you spend is firmly under your control, and not spent because you are being manipulated. Your time is given by God to you to steward. You will be accountable for it one day. Use it well- don’t let it get stolen from you. Be wise as serpents. Know the game.
To be continued in Pt. 3…
On January 31, 2019, the Christian Crew’s Bible Study did something a little different and became a sort of ‘topical discussion’ where the information presented in this series was talked about in a group. This article is in three parts, and each part will also include the Youtube video of the Topic Discussion if you are interested in the live responses of people as they occurred. If you find this article or the topic fascinating, please let us know in the comments!