Law in the Internet Society

I Am Online, Therefore I Am.

-- By SharanjitSandhu - 22 Dec 2017

Introduction: Convenience Plus Something Else

I understand that convenience is a dominating factor for why certain social platforms and other types of applications are attractive to me and other users. At one point in time, these platforms were foreign to us - not yet integrated into our lives as they are now. In the process of integrating these “conveniences” into our lives, we slowly became dependent on them. Now, instead of complementing our lives as just a tool or a service, these platforms are a part of us - learning from our likes and dislikes and becoming better able to anticipate our needs. We do not question whether the process of learning from our behavior is a problem because their convenience allows that aspect to go unnoticed.

I am aware of the convenience factor and that it is a dominant factor. But, that is not the only reason why people are so connected and stay that way.

I Am Online

Social platforms are appealing because you feel a sense of control over how you are perceived. On LinkedIn? , you can tailor your “professional” self and on Instagram you can curate the best version of yourself for a private or public audience. In a world where we are constantly defining ourselves by our titles, where we work, where we live, what we eat, and who we do things with, defining who we “are” on these platforms provides a false sense of power. It is a curated look book into the most interesting parts of our lives. We feel a sense of control when we can choose what people see and how they perceive us.

In the process of feeling all of this control - choosing what words we want to say and what images to post – it is easy to forget that our behavior is being catalogued and studied. That is why it is such an afterthought.

Times Are Changing

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about the negative effects of Facebook and other social platforms. Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya’s comments about how the platform is “ripping apart society” bring to the surface the darker side of these platforms. His characterization of the “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” hit at the core of why this sense of control isn’t actually control at all. Instead, we become dependent on feelings of acceptance and popularity that are the heart of social platforms. Because we want more, we post more, and get a hit of “social” interaction. Facebook itself has even commented about the results of various studies that report their news feed makes people “unhappy.”

Even with the negative effects of social platforms on our psyche coming to light, there are still faithful users. Why? It is not just convenience. I refuse to believe that people just surrender and decided to embrace the “machine” because life is just way better this way. It’s something else – it is that Facebook and social platforms are responding to people’s fears of not being able to control their experiences. They are providing users with a false sense of control.

What Platform Companies Are Doing "Right"

Thus, Facebook and other social platforms allow users to feel like they are in control of how their experience is tailored. For example, Facebook recently announced that the platform will add a “Snooze” button and allow users to “mute” people or topics for 30 days. Although this ability doesn’t touch upon the idea of data collecting on its users, it does divert one’s attention to the small amounts of control you can have when being on the platform.

Even Facebook’s latest announcement with respect to facial recognition in untagged pictures has a “users-can-control-their-experience” spin to it. The company explained “[y]ou’re in control of your image on Facebook and can make choices such as whether to tag yourself, leave yourself untagged, or reach out to the person who posted the photo if you have concerns about it.” This new feature comes off as being a privacy tool helping you better curate your image and decide what pictures you do or don’t want online. The key thing about this tool is that it can also be “turned off” - again, feeding the notion that it is a choice.

With such optics, Facebook and other platforms give users a false sense of control that divert attention away from the fact that their data is being catalogued to better understand their behavior. People do not feel helpless and dependent on a platform they’ve written off as being just too convenient to leave. It’s the exact opposite - they feel like this is a choice and they are choosing to opt in and tailor this experience for themselves.

Change Is Happening, But Slowly

Former Facebook program manager, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, recently wrote in an article that “[t]he hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable.” This is what happened with the recent election of Trump and the “fake news” accusations.

There will always be a small minority of people, who have become terrified, such as myself, and have disabled certain applications or deleted them from their phones entirely. However, what is slightly more hopeful is that people who were a part of creating the problem, such as Palihapitiya and Garcia-Martinez, are starting to speak out.

While many may be quick to point out that the such issues only stay relevant until a new viral article pops up on everyone’s news feed. I think enough of these conversations do have the power to cause large groups of people to reevaluate the cost of social interacting on such platforms, possibly causing Facebook to seriously reevaluate itself and how it functions. But, the fact that the change I speak of might come too slowly is also another reality.


Webs Webs

r1 - 22 Dec 2017 - 04:40:06 - SharanjitSandhu
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