Today, almost all of us have an account on popular social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, Pinterest, and more. Some of us use these platforms to share our lives with our family and friends. Many others now need to use them for professional reasons.
Such social media platforms can feel like a force for good, and undoubtedly they can be. These tools have brought new opportunities and possibilities for people, and they have given us the ability to connect with the world, at any given time in any given place.
However, there are some unintended consequences of using such platforms that are often not discussed in today’s digitalized culture. For example, the covert aim of the “free” platforms is to monetize social media use. This is one of the most fundamental aims of such social media giants, which is vastly ignored.
But the question is, if we don’t pay for the products, then is it us who are the products?
Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, echoes this sentiment in the documentary investigating social media companies, The Social Dilemma. He argues, “It’s the gradual slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”
He further says, “It’s the only possible product. That’s the only thing for them to make money from.”
Conformity Caused by Algorithms
A vehicle like social media operates on addiction. It could be argued that our own psychology is used against us.
Buried under algorithms, there exists thousands and thousands of people endlessly posting on these platforms to get their content seen by chasing “likes” and “followers.”
While we compete to have the most social engagement, in a bid to “outsmart” the algorithm, the dopamine-releasing drug can turn us into addicts. In this process, we can also unconsciously strip away our personalities and unique individuality.
This is because while trying to keep up with the latest hashtags, opinions, and trends, we’re often left conforming to the latest established orthodoxy. This in turn almost behaves like a “hivemind,” as millions of people engage in the same online activities together, usually around the same time. People unintentionally imitate each other, by posting similar content, often inspired by what they see online.
Consequently, people are left with recycled thoughts and ideas, and nothing original of their own. As the algorithm recommends the next picture, video, or filter, our self-identity can be heavily distorted – or even controlled.
As the algorithm recommends the next video or filter, our self-identity can be heavily distorted.
According to some experts, an unethical psychology of persuasion is literally built into these services. 50 psychologists signed a letter to the American Psychological Association accusing psychologists working at tech companies of using “hidden manipulation techniques.” This is formally defined as “the process by which a person's attitudes or behavior are, without duress, influenced by communications from other people.”
As technology becomes more persuasive and finds ways to make us use its services, our minds can become vulnerable to these systems. The long-term consequences of this technology, which continues to advance at a staggering speed with developments like the Metaverse, are unknown. In fact, we have only just recently come to discover Instagram’s deleterious effects on the mental health of teen girls after an explosive internal document was leaked by a former employee at Facebook.
Can you imagine just how many people all over the world are bombarded by algorithms and ads, which could shape their thoughts and even online behavior?
Our Individuality Matters
As social animals, we often want to be liked by our peers, our tribe, and our community. This is ingrained in the very psychology of human nature. But our “need for belonging” means that today our tribe can be the latest online trend, hashtag, or subculture. As we become more deeply interconnected with each other on social media, the power and influence of social media upon our personality and behavior could be unprecedented.
Our “need for belonging” means that our tribe can be the latest online trend, hashtag, or subculture.
We need to be self-aware in how we use these platforms and not compromise who we are as individuals or our self-identity for the latest movement online or fashionable trend.
This is why it’s important to detune from these services, in order to be independent minded and not have our opinions and thoughts influenced by a system engineered to retain as much of our attention as possible. We now exist in an era of the “attention economy,” so it’s important to control these platforms and to not let them control us.
Social media and big tech are the richest companies in the history of humanity. We must not let our unique individual traits and personalities be diluted for the next hashtag, trend, or movement to feed the “hivemind.”
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