Social media and Datafication: Working for Zuckerberg and calling it entertainment


Had a hard day at uni and need some time to yourself mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed? Documenting your travels, and sharing events you’re interested in with your friends on Facebook? Been there, done that. Mr Zuckerberg should give us a medal for giving him our attention any chance we get. At the end of the day, if it wasn’t for us, he would not have made $700 million in the last year. So where is our slice of the pie?

Well the reality is, that as our society grows increasingly dependent upon technology, these social media giants increasingly dictate our online social interactions, continuing to make astronomical yearly profits from the data we willingly disperse. We, the consumer, generate crucial data every day, that is then sold to advertising companies, making us the primary workforce. No matter how hard you try to get off your phone and do anything else, such as your readings (this could never be me obviously…), the tech giants have engineered addictive algorithms, with the sole purpose of getting more precious clicks.

These actions generate measurable data about our activity on their platforms. This process, known as datafication, is described as a “contemporary phenomenon which refers to the quantification of human life through digital information, very often for economic value”. This behavioural data is then sold to advertisers, earning Zuckerberg and co. the big (like truly gigantic) bucks, while we get the vast and damaging consequences of excessive social media usage.

The struggle for our attention is what makes digital platforms and advertisers so ruthless in their strategies. Previously, advertisers could not gauge their efficiency unless sales of the advertised products and services increased. Without active audience engagement, advertisements cannot attain quantifiable feedback. However, contemporary content engagement permits immediate feedback through the tacit collection of relevant user information. Subsequently, this accumulated data provides valuable information indicating the effectiveness of a corporation’s advertisements.

The more data that platforms can gather, the more they can sell to advertisers, and the increasing acquisition of data is solely dependent upon maintaining our attention. Social media is a primary profit avenue for the accumulation of data. Uber, Spotify, and even Google Search, are used as tools, and therefore have limited user attention. However, social media, must provide consistent engagement and entertainment for its users. Therefore, its algorithms are programmed to churn content keeping the user so entertained that they remain on the platform for as long as possible. The longer the platform has their attention, the more data it is collecting, and the more advertisements it is pushing towards the consumer.

Though this may seem harmless, the algorithms are not pushing out “refined” content that keep us entertained. They neither provide facts, nor intellectually challenging content and exceptional forms of art or talent. Instead, we salivate over its addictive content. From clickbait articles and slime videos to celebrity gossip, people tripping over, cat videos or dangerous diet culture. The platforms push out whatever is getting the most attention, which is often problematic content.

People all over the world have seen this play out to varying effects. Communities from the US to Argentina, are experiencing rapid political polarization due to the misinformation, filter bubbles, and extremist content perpetuated by alienating and impersonal algorithms. Furthermore, diet culture and dangerous methods of losing weight proliferate social media, recently exemplified in the chaotic and inappropriate usage of Ozempic. Much of this has to do with outrage, and whether serious or trivial (the Sopha Dopha and Shelby Sherritt mug fiasco is a wonderful example), these platforms will continue to push it because at the end of the day, it gets the most clicks.

Additionally, content is growing shorter and shorter, and its increasingly stimulating yet ultimately hollow satisfaction block out as many thoughts as possible. Young adults and children find it harder to concentrate, many even struggle to watch a movie without interruptions, and even more are incapable of deeply focusing on intellectual tasks. We have recently seen the consequences of this with research showing the effects of social media on academic work and social interactions.

We are actively destroying democracies and rotting our brains with mindless outrage while the big bosses swim in billions. Does this still seem harmless?

Nevertheless, without proper regulation by governments, the situation will not improve anytime soon. The competition for consumer attention and the advertising market will only continue to grow in the name of innovation and competition. Liberal democratic governments only know how to regulate markets through competition laws. However, digital platforms tend to run as monopolies, leading these strategies to continuously fail the welfare of society as a whole. It is only when governments treat these platforms as the market, rather than actors in the market, that we will get regulation that protects us from profit hungry CEO’s.

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