You probably use social media every day. But do you really know how it works? Read this article and you’ll find out!
How you think social media works
Whether we are talking about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube, the principles are usually the same. Google is also part of this because they own YouTube and certain things also apply to their search engine. So I’ll use the term “social media” to refer to all of these. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll sometimes use facebook as an example of social media, even if the principles apply to all the other platforms too.
In the beginning, you think about joining facebook. You’ve never had an account on this platform, but you know that many of your friends are using it. They say they use it to share pictures and stay up to date with their friends. Plus, you can use it to connect with anyone in the world!
You sign up
It sounds like something fun and interesting, so you create a facebook account to give it a try. You sign up, type in your name, choose a profile picture and send friend requests to the people you know. You also add information about yourself like the city you live in, your hometown, your education history and your workplace. Maybe you add other personal information too.
You create content
A few days later, you begin to share content on facebook. You’re having a good day so you ask a friend to take a picture of you. You share it on facebook and your friends hit the “like” button. Soon you’re checking your account to see who liked your pictures and what people said in the comments. This makes you feel appreciated, so you’ll probably share more pictures in the future.
It becomes part of your life
In time, you get used to facebook and you often use it to share what happens in your life. You share articles you like, music you love, events you want to attend and more. You install the facebook app on your phone to make it easier to stay in touch. You send messages and pictures to your friends and family using this incredible app. And you feel lucky that you can do all this “for free”!
It sounds pretty straightforward, right? If you’ve ever created an account on any social media platform and used it, you already know how this goes. Maybe you found this part of the article quite boring. But keep reading and you’ll see why I included all these steps – it’s because they all matter.
You’ll see that using social media is never as simple or straightforward as it seems.
How social media actually works
It’s time we look behind the curtain and see what really happens on social media platforms. So far, you’ve only seen your own version – what you do on these platforms. But that’s only half the story. Now we need to see what the people who own and run these platforms do.
To you, it may seem like someone designed an app, you installed it on your phone and you are now using it privately. But that’s most definitely not the case. It only seems that way. Here’s what the people who are in charge of these apps do.
They track everything you do on the app
As soon as you create your account on facebook (or any other platform), they begin tracking your every move. It’s like they create a folder with your name on it. And in that folder, they add every single thing you do on their platform: every post you like, every picture you share, every comment you leave, every page you follow, every post you look at – even every single message you privately send.
Wait! It gets even creepier! These apps may collect even information that you have never shared through their platforms.
For example, it seems that when you do a Google search, they record the words you type in even if you don’t hit enter to actually do a Google search. So they are tracking what you begin and intend to do on their website – even if you never hit enter to begin that search. Google also records your voice every time you use the voice function to look something up online. And it may even record the conversations you are having near your phone.1 All that gets added to your folder. Google also records every place you have been to if you turned on the location tracking on your phone. 2
Facebook also came under fire when people realized that it was storing information people never knowingly gave them permission to including phone numbers, text messages and pictures stored on the cellphone that were never uploaded or shared through the app.2
Unfortunately, these are only a few examples of how much data apps and devices can collect on us – even without our consent or knowledge. But this is only the beginning!
They ask you to reveal more information
This happens mostly in the first stage after creating your account. The apps will show you a tracking bar that is loading, telling you that you need to disclose more information to “complete” your profile. They might ask you to add your workplace, education level or birthday. Some also ask you for your phone number. Or they may encourage you to add new friends to follow.
This is common on several platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Even though this seems harmless since most people choose to add that information, it is an example of the way social media apps are pushing you to share more. And let’s face it, sometimes you add in that bit of information only because you are tired of always getting the same notification to “complete your profile” rather than because you actually want to share that piece of information. This is just one of the ways they use subtle manipulation to influence your behaviour.
But the question you should be asking yourself now is: why do they want you to disclose more information? Actually, why do these apps collect all this information and what do they do with it?
They create an online profile of yourself
This is just the beginning, but the reason why these apps collect every bit of information they can is to create an online profile of yourself. Think about it: your online activity can create a picture of the type of person you are. The content you engage with, the people you follow, the links you share, the videos you watch all share a lot about yourself when you put them together. And the people running these platforms use that data to compile a profile that describes who you are.3
Apparently, social media apps and other websites can determine many things about you such as your relationship status, your political ideology, your personality, your education level, your interests and more.3 Some even say that, depending on how you use your phone, they may even determine what your current mood is or if you are having your period at the moment.
According to Yuval Noah Harari, an algorithm that can analyze about 300 of your likes will be better at predicting your desires and opinions than your own wife or husband.4
It is even said that, thanks to the massive information they collect on billions of people, the algorithms will soon know us better than we know ourselves. And when that happens, there’s no way to tell what this will mean for the world we live in. 4
Maybe you don’t understand how facebook (and other platforms) can determine so much information about you from your likes and comments. Well, you don’t need to understand how their algorithms work. It only matters that they work.
Here’s the beauty and weirdness of it – nobody has to understand how the algorithm works. It can do its job regardless if the people who created it understand it or not. Since it has access to so much data, all it has to do is correlate the information they have and keep updating and improving the accuracy of the guesses and the predictions it makes. When it can correlate information about billions of people, a good AI algorithm is bound to get some things right. And that’s all that matters.3
It doesn’t have to be perfect or 100% correct, it just needs to be right most of the time or on average.3 In time, it may even get to the point where it knows you better than you know yourself – if that didn’t happen already.
Alright, so social media collects a ton of information to create profiles on all of us. But why are they doing this?
They want to sell ads
This is probably the most important thing you should know about social media – it is not free. Yes, it seems to be free because you do not pay a fee to sign up. But here’s the tricky part – even though you are not paying for these apps with money, you are paying with your data and your loss of privacy.5
Basically, you need to know this: facebook and Instagram have billions of users. These users can use the app 24/7 and can upload as much content as they like. Well, offering this service for free is just impossible. They need app developers and designers to make sure the apps and websites work properly and constantly improve them. They need servers to store all the content everyone is sharing and so on.
Therefore, they need to make money. Otherwise, these apps could never work. But if you are not paying the owners to let you use these apps, how are they making money? Here’s where it comes full circle and makes sense. These apps are recording all your data and creating profiles on you to sell that data to advertisers.3 Keep in mind that, on facebook, you are not the user or client, you are the product. Actually, to be more specific, your attention is the product.
That’s how they make money. They allow business to create ads and market them to the people who are more likely to be interested in their products – based on all that information they collect on you. These companies pay fees to get access to your data and push those ads so they will be shown to you. And that’s how facebook makes a lot of money! It was reported that in 2018 facebook’s revenue was $55.8 billion – and most of that comes from advertising.6
Maybe this doesn’t seem so alarming to you. But just know that facebook (and other platforms) collect all that data on you and allow any third-party to use it to target you with ads in order to influence your behaviour, usually to buy certain products.
However, things can get out of hand – and they did in the past. It is believed that facebook had a big impact on the Brexit Referendum and on the US presidential elections in 2016.7 And when a platform like facebook can sway the presidential election of the most powerful country on the planet, then we need to worry.
It is true that facebook has made changes to their policy in order to make ads more transparent. For example, if you visit a certain business page, you can see the ads that they are currently running. This way anybody can report an ad that is considered harmful. They may have taken other precautions in order to make sure that they reduce the chances of something like this happening again.
But even so, we still do not know how others are using this platform that gives them access to billions of people.3 We cannot be sure that facebook will not be used in ways that undermine democracy or negatively impacts millions of people. We can definitely hope it won’t happen again, but only time will tell.
They want to keep you on the platform as much as possible
Now you know what facebook’s agenda is: they want to collect your data and sell it to other businesses to make money. But in order to do this, they need to make sure that you are using their platform. If you never log in to their platforms, they cannot collect data on you; therefore they have nothing to sell in order to make money.
But the more time you spend on the platform, the more you engage with content on the platform, the more data they can collect on you.3 So it makes sense that they would want to keep you on the platform as much as possible. The more time you spend on social media, the more you help these platforms make money.
There are many ways that social media platforms encourage you to spend more time looking, scrolling and engaging with content. They designed their apps to be habit-forming – or some would say even addictive.3
How do they do this? They are using your psychology against you. A lot can be written about this topic, but I’ll only share a few things that make social media apps so addictive.
Think about this – as a species, we are modern men who live in 2019. But we are still Homo Sapines who have many basic instincts that we inherited from our ancestors who were hunters and gatherers. In the past, you could only survive if you were a part of the tribe, so social relationships were a matter of life or death. Even though we no longer live the same way our ancestors did, we often feel the same way.
We still crave connection and appreciation. We still fear being criticized or banned from society. And social media simply exploits these basic instincts. So we turn to social media “to connect” – even if we do this in a superficial way.
Every time we get a positive comment or a like, we feel appreciated by the group. So we obsessively check our phones for updates to make sure that the situation hasn’t changed in the last 3 minutes. We want to make sure that other “members of the tribe” accept us too. So when we get dozens of likes, we feel appreciated. When we get none, we feel isolated, sad and we are in pain.
This seems to happen because, on some level, our brains equate likes with acceptance and survival so we want to make sure we keep getting them.
Of course, this is just an overly-simplified explanation. Another reason why you get hooked on social media is that any positive interaction is a reward. And whenever you get a reward, your brain releases dopamine that makes you feel good – at least temporarily.8
When your brain learns the way to get a dopamine hit, it wants to do it again and again. In a famous experiment, rats could stimulate their brain to release dopamine every time they pressed on a lever. It made them feel good, so they did it again…and again…until that was all they did.8 They stopped eating and sleeping to press that lever.
Even though it is unlikely that you will scroll down on social media until you die, it is likely that you will get so addicted to it that you can never put your phone down for more than a few hours at a time.
Your brain gets so addicted to social media that the results are scary. There are teenagers who spend 12 hours a day on social media.9 There are people who feel that their phone is vibrating in their pocket when it isn’t – just because the brain wants you to check it so that you get a dose of dopamine again.
Many of the features on social media were designed to make you more addicted to your apps: the likes, the like counts, the notifications, the personalized feeds, the bottomless feeds. Actually, I believe that few features of social media (if any) have not been altered or designed to increase time spent on the platform.
Your phone is now like a drug or a slot machine that you carry around all the time.3 Even if the people who created the features like the endless feed or the like button come to regret it in the end, you cannot go back or opt out. The apps are still using them because they are so effective and so profitable for them!
One of the most addictive features of social media is definitely the infinite scroll. Think about it: if you want to, you can literally scroll down for hours on end! But you won’t just scroll down. Your feed is personalized so that, sooner or later, you will find something that seems interesting enough to click on it.
Did you know that your “feed” is unique? It is personalized based on the accounts you follow, the content you interacted with in the past, the private messages you sent and so on. We still don’t know everything that is taken into account to generate the feed you see on all social media accounts.
However, we do know the rule: your feed will show you the content you are most likely to interact with. Sometimes, these feeds are so well put together that people find it incredible and scary!
There is a theory that apps like Google are so good at predicting what you will like because they use virtual voodoo dolls.10 According to a previous Google employee, such algorithms may use an online profile of yourself. They create this profile based on all the past online activity they have access to. When they want to create an enticing feed for you, they create it and show it to your voodoo doll first. And then, after they see what content your voodoo doll interacts with, they show that content on your feed first.10
It is true that this is just a theory that was never proven, but maybe what is even scarier is that companies could predict what you like without using such voodoo dolls. How can they predict what you would like to see so well that it seems like they are often reading your mind?
Of course, sometimes it seems like the recommendations you see on your feed are meant for someone else. That is not a mistake – it’s good design of the algorithm.3 According to Jaron Lanier, a social media algorithm always tries to optimize your feed to better suit your interests. But in order to do that effectively, it also includes some random posts at times. This way, the algorithm can test to see if you are interested in other types of content that you don’t usually search for.
If it never shows you cat videos, how can it know that you don’t like them? So it shows you some cat videos and, if you interact with them, it will show you more and more. If you don’t interact with them, it won’t show them again soon. But they’ll try showing you something like fitness posts or dessert recipes and so on to see if you would be interested in that. It keeps testing random content until it finds something that you like. As you can see, on social media everything seems to be planned and designed – even randomness!
What should you do now?
Maybe this is the first time you spent thinking about how social media apps work. Maybe you assumed the app owners were creating tools you can use for free because they are good people. Or maybe you already knew how these apps work.
Whatever your situation is, I believe this article made you think of the power of social media apps and the data they are constantly collecting. Now that you know this information, perhaps you are wondering what you should do next.
That’s obviously something you have to decide for yourself. The way I see it, there are only 3 options to choose from:
1. Just carry on as before
You continue to use social media and other apps exactly as you have used them in the past. Even though you have a better understanding of their agenda and algorithms, you do not want to change your behaviour.
2. Be more mindful of your online behaviours
You want to use social media and the internet less and more mindfully. You delete the accounts that do not provide much value to you. You edit your privacy settings as to minimize the data apps can collect on you. You share less content online and only when it is useful or important to you. You also spend less time consuming content across different platforms. However, you do not want to completely stop using all these apps or you cannot do so at the moment.
3. Delete your accounts
You decide to delete your social media accounts. You realize that they provide little value to you in exchange for your loss of privacy and freedom. You no longer want to feed a machine that does not respect your privacy, individuality and autonomy. You no longer what to just give up all your personal data. Because of this, using such apps seems unacceptable to you. You choose the experience of minor inconveniences because you wish others would do the same. You hope that one day a better app will be created or the current social media apps will begin to respect and value their users more – as they should.
As I said, your decision is entirely your own. Unlike social media apps, I did not write this article to influence your behaviour. You are free to use social media 10 hours a day or to delete all your social media accounts today. However, I would recommend thinking about what you want to do next.
Social media and other online services are everywhere and they are becoming more and more powerful. The more time we spend on these platforms, the more we invest in them and the more we feel attached to them. Therefore, it is imperative that we educate ourselves to understand the basics of such apps. We must make informed decisions about our own behaviour to ensure that we are not puppets who are controlled by algorithms and systems we do not understand.
We may be fast approaching a time when algorithms know us better than we know ourselves and where they influence our decisions every day. It is our choice whether we want to be a part of that world and help build it today or not.
Given our current situations and the current predictions about the future, ignorance is the worst option. Take your time to observe your own behaviour, your own relationship with the apps and devices you use every day. Try to understand how they work and how they are impacting your mind, your time, your habits. And then decide to act in the way that builds the future you want to live in, the world you want to be a part of.
Whatever you decide to do about social media apps and the internet, make sure it is your decision. We cannot decide anything about these apps that are taking over our lives – how they work, who owns them, how they make money. There is only one thing you can decide: how you will use them.
1. “Goole voice search records and keeps conversations people have around their phones”, Independent – link
2. “Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you”, The Guardian – link
3. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier
4. Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari
5. “Digital Capitalism” with Douglas Rushkoff on the Making Sense Podcast – link
6. “Facebook ends 2018 with record profits”, The Hill – link
7. “Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach”, The Guardian – link
8. Hooked, Nir Eyal
9. Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
10. “Your phone isn’t spying on you – it’s listening to your ‘voodoo doll’ ”, ABC – link
* When writing this article, I used information from more resources than I listed here. However, because I learned this information over the course of months without taking notes on everything, I find it hard to list every resource. However, I did my best to share the sources when I could easily verify.