By now over 50 million viewers around the world have seen the latest terrifying Netflix documentary about social media and surveillance capitalism and how the toxic combination is harming our lives and our society.
The Social Dilemma is the story of how the tech giants discovered they could monetise addiction by leveraging techniques of psychological manipulation.
It opens our eyes to the way our lives are constantly monitored — and controlled — by these platforms. In 2020 it seems we’re all inside the Truman Show.
The major tech platforms like Facebook and Google platforms are have been purposefully built to optimise three things:
i) how long can they keep eyeballs glued to screens;
ii) how many new users they can get; and
iii) how much ad revenue they can generate from serving ads to people whose eyeballs are on screens.
“The Social Dilemma opens our eyes to the way our lives are constantly monitored — and controlled — by these platforms. It’s the Truman Show on steroids, monitoring one third of the planet”. RASHA ABDUL RAHIM, CO-DIRECTOR AMNESTY TECH
This all feeds their underlying business model, which is essentially to harvest and monetise our personal information. This model’s fundamental characteristic is to aggregate vast amounts of data on people by keeping them on the platforms for as long as possible, use that data to infer incredibly detailed profiles on people’s lives and behaviour, and monetise it by selling those predictions to whoever wants to influence them.
Algorithms on YouTube determine what video will play next, while on Facebook they determine the content on our feeds and what ads will be served to us. All too often these algorithms amplify disinformation and divisive content, fuel racism, and even influence our own beliefs and opinions.
The film further reveals how development teams within these giants are explicitly tasked with exploiting the vulnerabilities of our human psychology: our addictive nature, our need for social validation and our bias towards incendiary and sensationalist content.
In other words, the whole information ecosystem that currently serves one third of the planet was set up not to serve us but to manipulate and use us. Facebook and Google services appear “free” but, as former Google designer Tristan Harris says in the film, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”.
“We could make a ton of money if we monetised our customers, if our customers were our product. We’ve elected not to do that. We’re not going to traffic in your personal life. Privacy to us is a human right, a civil liberty”. TIM COOK, APPLE CEO, 2018 INTERVIEW WITH MSNBC
Users currently pay for Facebook with their data, which marketers pay to leverage — Facebook doesn’t give your data to third parties, but advertisers can pay the service to target users based on carefully collected personal info.
Are people willing to pay for social media?
The solution then may be a user pays system. When people hear terms like “paid membership” and “subscription model,” rumours fly. However as the shortcomings of the current model become harder and harder to ignore there is evidence that market sentiment is shifting.
Twitter for example isn’t planning to go fully paid-access., but are considering creating additional offerings advanced users are willing to pay to use.
Recently they asked select users what would be most or least important to them in a membership program with some interesting results.
This would be a welcomed feature, but Twitter isn’t likely to hand out millions of blue ticks. Rather profile badges could link to employers or businesses for example. Another implementation could seen journalists could be linked to the various magazines they write for.
“In addition to night mode, you could change the fonts and theme colour of Twitter on your phone and computer. Background colour, links, mentions, hashtags and icons would appear in whatever colour you choose.”
These are just two of several ideas which Twitter floated, with some more popular than others. The fact they’re even discussing it though provides a glimmer of hope that there may be light at the end of the monetised attention tunnel.
Winds of change
The market is more open to a subscription based social product than ever before which better aligns incentives to deliver a net positive user experience.
Similarly to the concept explored by Twitter, Miit uses a freemium based revenue model instead of the typical advertising model used by most social networks. While the core offering is free and available for everyone, additional features are layered on top for those wanting to use them.
Aligning the incentives this way means our users are our customers not our product & we’re always focused on delivering the best user experience.
We want to use those powerful tools that for too long have been pointed at us, and use them for something better.