Social Media isn’t making the world worse, Advertising is

The news that Instagram will join Facebook to impose an algorithm-curated feed is causing all sorts of hand-wringing, but of course the writing was on the wall the day Facebook acquired Instagram. Why else but to monetize all that Attention from their users, and maintain Facebook’s dominance? (Or prepare for eventual irrelevance, if certain pundits are to be believed.)

The real danger is more insidious, and there is no broad-based solution in sight, at least that I know of. It’s the societal impact of Social Media in our lives, but not for the reason you think.

If you’re a TED talk fan like me, you might have heard that social media networks have created a “filter bubble” that has led to polarization of views and a general decline in civility online (YouTube comments, anyone?) Search engines are guilty of this too: Google searches are highly personalized. Don’t believe me? Have a friend (preferably with a different demographic or cultural background) google the same keyword and compare your results.

This bubble enslaves you in an online echo chamber where you only see content by people that agree with you.  How did this happen? You.

  1. In order to serve ads that are highly targeted and effective, Facebook and other networks must know your interests, political views, travel habits, preferred news sources, and so on.
  2. They know what you like by tracking what content you engage with the most, from tracking your Likes and Shares, to measuring how much time you spend on each post.
  3. In order to keep you on their platform so that you can be available to be targeted by advertisers, Facebook (and Instagram, and Google) must create a content stream/newsfeed that is finely tuned to what you like to see. You stay because your natural desire is to keep consuming content that YOU want to see.

This bubble effectively hides dissonant content from you.

Exposure to diverse points of view is critical to developing a balanced, largely unbiased view of the world, so this filtering of what you see, can polarise you. When the online world meets offline though, people with extremely different POVs can clash, often with severe consequences.

While the social networks are not going to change this state of affairs anytime soon, there are a few things you can do as an individual:

  • Switch your Facebook newsfeed setting from “Top Stories” to “Most Recent” (Find out the settings in other social networks that allow you to do this. Warning: It’s not always possible.)
  • Actively subscribe to news sources with a different viewpoint from yours. If you’re liberal, make sure you include a few conservative news sources in your feed.
  • Spend less time consuming your news online, and more time cultivating a natural curiosity by speaking to people you meet offline. Take an open, non-judgemental stance when listening.
  • Ask lots of questions. Question everything you read.

 

 

Picture credit: NYT