It has been a while since social media became a staple in our everyday lives. Very rare is it nowadays to find a person without a social media account. In this day and age, we don’t ask someone for their number but ‘follow’ them or ‘request to be friends’ on some sort of social networking service.
Myspace’s spectacular burst onto the social media scene back in 2004 and the subsequent market takeover by Facebook brought a dramatic change in our lifestyles. People do not bother to read printed news but access it digitally via content shared by other users on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Checking up on old acquaintances involves taking a look at their Timelines on Facebook or photos uploaded onto Instagram. Comments, likes and shares are essential to building social capital.
Of the litany of choices we have, however, Facebook is the platform of choice. What began as a hot-or not game for American college students developed into a fully-fledged virtual social infrastructure with 2.2 billion monthly active users that permeates every facet of our lives.
Through Facebook, users can get the full social media experience. Follow the most popular celebrities? Check. Carefully sculpt an image with which to portray to others? Check. Online shopping? Check. And all this accessibility comes free of charge! Right..?
While users are not required to pay a regular fee to use Facebook they do pay with something less tangible. Personal data.
Back in 2015, results from a joint research project between Cambridge and Stanford University conducted with 86,220 volunteers showed that by analysing just 10 “likes” on Facebook, a computer program would know more about you than your closest companion.
The most recent scandals engulfing Facebook all reflect this. Cambridge Analytica’s role in swaying voters’ opinions and Russians spreading fake news during the 2016 United States Presidential Election and Brexit were rude awakenings for those of us who believed our troves of personal data were safe in the hands of Facebook.
But it isn’t as if the recent cases of data exploitation and consequent manipulation of users suddenly cropped up out of thin air. Facebook has existed since 2004 and so has been around for over a decade now. Social media has been mainstream for approximately the same amount of time. During the rise of social media, countless studies warned of its potential pitfalls so it’s hard to say Facebook, or anyone else for the matter, never saw this coming.
It is hard to pin all the blame on Facebook. What else can we expect from a social networking service? For Facebook, more exposure means more advertising revenue. The more users they have access to the more attractive they are to potential clients. While for sectors outside of social media, concepts such as diseconomies of scale may apply, for a social media giant like Facebook, becoming bigger just means becoming better.
So what can we do?
#DeleteFacebook is trending these days, no less on Facebook itself. But that seems a nonsensical route to take. What is the point of posting on Facebook that you are going to deactivate your account when the post itself will also disappear after you do so?
Do we find an alternative platform? The closest substitute for Facebook in terms of functionality and number of users is probably Instagram. So… hop onto Instagram? The slight catch is that Instagram is owned by Facebook. Ruling out the option of rushing onto Instagram. Switching to any other social networking service doesn’t make sense either because they lack the number of users – which is the primary reason in people staying put with Facebook for the time being.
In response to all the recent fiasco and loss of face, Facebook may decide to restructure their business model. Instead of keeping the service free for all users, subscription fees may be introduced; which would allow Facebook to be less dependent upon running advertisements while making it less attractive to potential malcontents to spread fake news, but this kind of wholesale structural change won’t be happening overnight.
Should we wait for government regulations throughout the world to set laws in place for digital privacy? New regulations and laws will be needed to protect our personal data and also penalize those who try to exploit it. On this front, Europe is beginning to flex its muscles when dealing with Facebook and other big tech firms from the United States, so there may be some long term hope. But US legislators are not going to suddenly clip Facebook’s wings when its growth along with other big tech firms is almost solely responsible for the growth of the US economy.
Completely shutting ourselves off of social media should do the trick then. Shouldn’t it? This isn’t likely either. Because our lives are so intertwined with social media these days, barring the internet suddenly disappearing from the face of the Earth, people are never going to quit.
Any meaningful institutional-level attempt to change the status-quo will be difficult and won’t be available anytime soon, so we are most likely left to our own devices to better protect our data. This means exposing ourselves less on these services and using them in moderation. Posting your innermost thoughts on the internet probably isn’t the smartest thing to do anyways.
This is a conversation the world is going to need for us to reap the benefits of social media in the digital age. New regulations and restructuring of how these companies work will be needed in order to protect our personal data from scheming hands. But we must also take responsibility for protecting our own personal data. Let’s hope the conversations take place before it becomes too late.