Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Be careful what you "Like" ... (social media, data mining, and blatant self-promotion)

I just finished a book called Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection by Jacob Silverman.  I read books like this as often as I can find them because this is an area where my personal and professional interests intersect.   My library school degree is actually a MA in Information Studies, and my personal interest is tied to the fact that I am an avid consumer of digital information, and a somewhat skeptical user of social media .

My initial reaction, after only the first chapter, was to abandon social media altogether. So I put down the book and deactivated my Facebook account – knowing even as I did so that it would be temporary. Within an hour, my mother (who is not on Facebook) called to ask me why I hadn’t updated her about a family member’s health condition, which had been mentioned on Facebook. I gently reminded her about all the reasons (excuses) I have for not remembering that sort of thing  (work, stress, being the daughter of my father) and sort of implied that if she felt she was entitled to that information, maybe she should create her own account. And then, feeling guilty, I reactivated mine.

However, there are many reasons I do intend to maintain my social media accounts. I have friends and family all over the world and I like seeing their photos and updates and getting mini-glimpses into their lives. I like the filtering options on Instagram that allow me to take pictures of my dog and edit the image so that her adorableness resolves on the screen instead of appearing like a blacked-out, dog-shaped hole.

And I do this for professional reasons. Because “everyone else does it” and I work in a job that requires knowing and understanding everything I can about meeting the informational needs of our customers.  And maintaining a searchable web presence is, in itself, evidence of technical capabilities that future employers might require.

So, I’m not going to give up social media – and that isn’t what this book is trying to achieve. Instead, it’s just raising awareness of the personal and commercial effects of a society intent on documenting, preserving, promoting, and sharing its private life.

If you want to know about all the ways social media can negatively affect a person individually, there’s a wealth of information out there (including this book). There are also a lot of resources about protecting your online reputation, or increasing your social status, attracting more followers or friends etc. 

The reason I’m writing this is because of a key point of which I wasn’t fully aware and I think it’s worth pointing out.

Most social media sites have embedded widgets across the internet to enable what Facebook calls “frictionless sharing,” which means I can hit a like or a heart or +1  button and share whatever I’m looking at with my friends and followers (in fact, after I post this blog, I’m going to hit that button to share it with you). 
Sharing this information serves two purposes. The most obvious is that I can easily share something I’ve created, or discovered and found interesting or funny or meaningful. It says to my group of friends “Hey! This is cool” or “This is what I believe” or “This is weird/outrageous/unacceptable.”  “This!” gives you, my friend, a little more insight into me – as a person. And if you agree, you’ll like it too and validate me. And if you don’t like it, you’ll disagree and we’ll have a conversation, or you’ll roll your eyes, or at worst, you’ll block me, or something.  Whatever …

But the second role this “frictionless sharing” plays is that each click of a button adds another data point into a file that is kept about me, my interests, preferences, personal beliefs & biases – and that information is then used (and often sold to interested third parties) to target me for specific advertising campaigns, or to filter what displays in my various feeds. If I like a post a friend has shared about an underdog presidential candidate, I’ll start seeing more posts like that. And if I get tired of seeing videos about dogs, I can click a button in Facebook and say “Show me less about this” and then Facebook will know I hate dogs. Everything I like or ignore or even hover the mouse over but decide not to click is registered by these sites and then fed into algorithms that determine the content I see every day.

And what I click on could then be used, along with my profile picture, to promote an advertisement that shows up in your feed. When you see a post that refers to something I liked, (it could be a mutual friend’s status update or a band or a business), the information is presented in a frame as an insight into my personality, when it’s actually being used as an endorsed advertisement.

I’m not saying this is inherently bad – but people need to be aware that by engaging in these posts by clicking, liking, sharing etc. you are doing more than showing approval or insight to your friends, you are also participating in widespread market research. These social media sites and third party business and corporations are capitalizing on what used to be one of the most reliable and valued forms of local advertising – “word of mouth.” Think about it – when we’re looking for a mechanic, or a hairstylist, or a lawyer, we ask our friends first… and often, their endorsement means even more than a 5 star review by an anonymous or unknown person.

I’ve always known that what I “like” on Facebook  (or external sites) displays to my friends, and I try to be selective about what I click – because my relatively small group of friends is actually very diverse. It includes family members, friends from kindergarten and college, and former, current and potential coworkers … not to mention people I actually want to impress. This is why my social media activity is limited almost entirely to self-deprecating jokes and pictures of my dog (who I hate*).

I recognize that many people use their social media accounts to actively promote political ideologies, spread awareness of important civil rights issues, affirm religious and spiritual beliefs, or to seek support and validation in times of emotional crises. This is one of the more positive features of social media – the fact that it allows people to form communities and support networks across a broader spectrum than they might find locally or in real life. 

The point I'm trying to make (and the point of this excellent book) is that we need to keep in mind that while we’re sharing our lives and likes with each other, we are freely contributing to a data collection system that uses the information we share in ways we may never have intended. And we need to be aware that the information and advertisements displayed in our feeds and sidebars, especially that which appears to have been endorsed by our friends, is an unreliable and incomplete representation of our interests and personalities. Just like everything else we see or say on the Internet.

(*I don't actually hate dogs. Except for this one:)