You are Social Media’s Product, not its Customer

As the world evolves, the tools, settings, and exchanges we engage in grow in complexity. Numerous corporations, individuals and motives are behind the decisions and interactions we face daily in this monetized culture.

In this reality, we can quickly find ourselves exploited by others if we are unaware of what is happening. This can be especially true in our interactions and time online.

Social media is a helpful and dangerous tool to which we have access. It allows us to connect with loved ones and new friends. It helps to create community and democratize information in a way that can bolster our society’s values.

However, we can only use this tool if we understand some of its basic elements. 

One of the most important things to understand is social media’s business model: users are the product, not the customer.

With some notable exceptions, social media is free to use. There is no cost associated with Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Pinterest and most access to Twitter (X). This free entry can trick us into thinking one of three things:

1. We use this tool in the same way that we stand and talk with a friend in a public space.
2. The platform we are using is just a public service or a gift we are fortunate to receive.
3. We are somehow extracting value from these companies by using their product for no cost. 

However, this free entry is a purposeful tool for companies to generate more revenue. Social media’s main revenue streams are, for the most part, advertisement and data. 

Social media wants you to spend as much time on the platform as possible so they can sell your attention to advertisers. This is not dissimilar to how television and many other platforms work. One of social media’s goals is to get you to keep scrolling so that you see more ads and are more likely to click on a link and purchase a product. 

To do this, social media platforms are constantly refining their methods to get you to keep scrolling. One tried and true method involves the fact that people engage more with posts that make them angry and scared than happy or grateful. So those are the types of posts that will most often surface at the top of your feeds.

Again, this is similar to what we are familiar with from the formation of the 24-hour news cycle. Scary, sad and disheartening stories keep our attention and are more valuable for advertisers.

The second revenue stream is related yet more nefarious than just our attention. So much of social media and the internet today is built around the collection, packaging and sale of data. 

This data can be simple information like contact and basic demographic details often required for websites and other registrations.

It can be a level deeper, such as purchasing and travel habits logged through various rewards programs.

This data can also be less concrete, like information collected through personality quizzes, page likes, and location history.

All this is tracked and gathered through our personal devices and can then be sold to any number of ready consumers for various reasons.

It is important to know how much information companies can collect just by our scrolling through a feed. For example, social media sites can track what is on your feed, how long you spend looking at each item, and what posts you click, like, comment on and share.

They can also see if you scroll past something and then return to it. They can often see your location and who else you are around and compare the data between you to draw further conclusions.  All of this information can be passed along to advertisers to refine their methods for selling to you.

So, why does all this matter? 

First, it matters because companies are extracting value from you— you are the product of these sites. You have a right to this value and should decide how and when it is given. Websites and companies obscure this whole process so that you freely give your attention and data for them to use.

Second, it matters because bad actors will exploit these methods for their own gain. This exploitation is complicated and often cloaked behind fake information on these sites. But, with awareness, we can evade these entities. 

Be aware of how you engage with social media. Remember that you are the product and your attention and data are being sold. This awareness will allow you to choose how to engage with social media.

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