“If you are not paying for the product, you are the product”. This is probably the most quoted statement from this documentary which provides incredible insights from former executives of the social media tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, YouTube etc. but it is a bit more sophisticated: “The product is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior, and they are selling it online to the highest bidder”. It is a tiny change in what we do, what we think and eventually who we are.
With everything we do online we are leaving eternal footprints in the internet which the tech giants pick up and add to their infinite collection of data about us and monetize it. In the film they call it “surveillance capitalism”.
The social media business is described as having three dials: Engagement, Growth and Advertising/Monetization and the companies built a highly sophisticated machine where AI-powered algorithms influence the user’s behavior towards those goals. The ability to make people addicted has been designed into the system. Interestingly enough there are only 2 industries that call their customers “users”: illegal drugs and software. Money is being made by selling the certainty that the ad will generate a certain number of leads which get pushed through a funnel and eventually will become customers buying the product that is being advertised. This certainty is grounded on the ability to make great predictions from the intelligence available about the user. It is like a stock market where “human futures” are being traded – predictions on human actions. The more data available the more precise the predictions become.
The 2016 US elections have shown major influence being taken by social media advertising and the Trump presidency has demonstrated how social media can be used to divide the population by using radical language and fake news. Fake news on Twitter spreads 6 times faster that real news. Funny enough Facebook argues that the way to fix the “fake news problem” is to come up with even more sophisticated AI algorithms. In a way the AI seems to be driving its own dynamics and you could ask yourself if anyone in the social media world still understands how they really work – scary! Maybe blockchain can be used to fight the fake news.
Two people even within the same country do not receive the same output on exactly the same google search request. There is no “shared reality”. The output is influenced by the intelligence about the individual user that is already available. Social media seem to know what we like and will present, prioritize and recommend to us more information just like it. They will connect us to more users that like what we like and lock us up in our own “virtual reality”.
Social media has turned from a tool that allowed us to fulfill our natural desire to connect in new, easier, and expanded ways into a system that turns human beings into compute nodes. The analogy with the film Matrix comes to mind and apocalyptic scenarios are being discussed: social divide, civil war, the end of democracy …
So, what does it take to “wake up” from the Matrix and do we really want to? Maybe it is already too late? The documentary does not give a clear answer. It may be about financial pressure, regulation, enforcing social responsibility. For sure it is a call to action for true leaders!