10 August, 2015
Blaugust, Day 10
When I post here on my blog, I’m arguably promoting myself when I write here; the ads you see on my site generate very little income. These words belong to me as I pay the hosting, I write the words, I use software with a reasonable license.
But when I post a message on social media, how do my words get used? Arguably, I still own the words (depending on the EULA), but I’m at least letting someone else rent them out and profit from them. And, how they profit from those words influences how they treat me, my words, and topics that are important to me.
You are not the customer
There’s an internet adage that goes, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Like most pithy sayings, this is oversimplified, and in this case for social media it’s mostly accurate. When you use social media as a non-celebrity individual, you are not the customer. You don’t directly pay anything to Twitter, Facebook, or Google, so they don’t generate profit from you directly. But, they generate profit from your activity.
Facebook and Google are essentially ad companies with other business activities that see to promote that focus. Why does Google run Google+? Because they’re a warm and fuzzy group of people who want you to have a nice place to share cat photos? No, because your activity on their site gives them more data to use for their model to better sell advertising. Same thing their search engine does these days.
Take a look at Facebook’s financial reports; note that one of their largest intangible assets is users, greater than technology or intellectual property like patents. That’s right, Facebook considers you an asset. Not to say that they treat users poorly or contemptuously because they need users to generate their income. But, if there’s a conflict between something a user cares about vs. something that can generate profit (like, say, privacy issues), the profit will get the attention.
But, this is nothing new. Many sites use advertising. The way ads work is that you get more money if more people click on the ads. More people will likely click on your ads if you have more people. So, there is a direct profit motive to get more people to your site so they can click on ads. What’s different is that this greatly affects how you communicate with others.
If it bleeds, it leads
You go to that news site to read news, right? But the news is just what gets you there, the money is made by the ads. So, while in an ideal world you might expect that the best news site that provides the best news will get the most views, the reality is that a lot of places will exploit your psychology to make a buck. But, again, this isn’t new as most places that made money from advertising have been using these techniques from long before the internet.
The old classic is “if it bleeds, it leads”, an old saying from the realm of newspapers that a violent story will get more attention and thus sell more newspapers. More newspapers sold means that you can sell ads in the newspaper for more money. This has continued into our current era, where anything controversial will generally get more coverage because it gets more attention and thus more people exposed to ads. And, further, it makes financial sense for a site to fan the flames of a controversy in order to increase views and generate more ad revenue.
Warped point of view
Social media is motivated to adjust what you see. For example, Facebook sells access for businesses. The stuff you see is not necessarily what’s popular with your friends, but rather what a business has paid for you to see. This has pretty direct consequences for smaller companies, as their budgets are obviously not quite as big as the large companies, but will also skew your perception of what is popular.
Facebook also helped with a psychological experiment with its users where it changed the emotional content of items in a feed and measured changes in behavior. This caused quite an uproar at the time, and it does bring up questions about what else Facebook is willing to manipulate. Especially if there’s a profit motive.
Of course, you could suspect this of any site on the internet, not just large social media sites. But, if I can’t stick to a regular schedule of posting topics until this month, how likely is it I’d be manipulating what you see for my own profit?
We do worse to ourselves
This isn’t intended to be a screed about how horrible capitalist companies are manipulating our social interactions for profit, although these issues certainly gives me pause. I’m sure there are good people out there working for the large sites that want to do good as well as make income for the site that employs them. And as I’ll discuss later this week, our own psychology is to blame for a lot of problems in social media. But, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself; there’s a full week of posts coming up.