Category: Social Media

The Ethics of Social Media

These days, it’s difficult to be a part of society without having some form of social media. No doubt it has helped us connect with distant family members and new parts of the world, but at what cost? With rising social media concerns, a new career has been created: Social Media Ethicists. Let’s take a look at this new position, and what it means for our daily media consumption. 

social media ethicist

What is a Social Media Ethicist? 

A social media ethicist’s (other times called a tech ethicist or design ethicist) job is to responsibly monitor the curation of user-based media. Of course, responsible is a subjective term, but there are a couple of things these ethicists monitor specifically in order to come to conclusions.

For one thing, social ethicists have a deep knowledge of human innate behavior and psychology. Whether we are conscious of it or not, apps, especially those of social media, are often designed to play into our biological cues in order to keep us engaged. A tech ethicist’s job is to determine where this inevitable practice goes too far.

Social media ethicists are unique in that they are yet to have an official code of ethics. Other disciplines of design, such as architecture, have general guidelines they can look to from the American Institute of Architects. Since social media is such a new development as a whole, these codes are yet to exist, and consequently, create a lot of grey area in regards to what is considered morally acceptable.

Hence, part of the hiring process of Ethicists is to determine general morality. It’s easy to see how the duties and overall effectiveness of these workers can get muddy. Big name companies such as Google pay good money to bring these specialists onto their teams.

Moreover, all social media companies invest heavily in consultants with a deep understanding of human instincts and biological cues. As we learn more about social media and its effect on society, more of these positions should arise resulting in a more streamlined code of ethics. 

mobile apps

How does Social Media Affect the Brain?

Without a doubt, social media affects our thought patterns and habits, even after we exit the app. According to the UK communications regulator Ofcom, two-thirds of all adults under 35 check their phones within the first 5 minutes of the day.

A majority of American citizens sampled by the PEW research center reported social media interrupting at least one in-person interaction on a regular basis. It has become normal to pull out our phones in any free gap of time/silence.

Not only does this reduce the quality of our personal connections, but our brain adapts to the instant gratification given through phone usage. According to the tech company Asurion, people on average check their phone every 10 minutes.

The phrase “digital dependency” has become much more than a buzzword, as a majority of people in the same study reported some form of stress/anxiety when their phone was off, or outside of arms reach. 

When you receive a “like” on a social platform, your brain reacts in the same way it would if you were on drugs. A shot of dopamine is sent through your system, making the experience highly addictive. Moreover, since the amount of likes received is unpredictable, your brain becomes even more attached to the activity, as you are essentially replicating the thrill of a slot machine.

This is no accident- relatively new features such as the “pull to refresh” feature embedded on most social platforms give the user the illusion of control- Users periodically receive the biological reward of dopamine after physically acting to refresh a page. Subconsciously, our brain associates our refreshing with the dopamine rush, and we quickly become addicted to refreshing constantly with an app, in search of a hit. 

Our body relies on visual cues to guide our actions more so than conscious, rational thought. App designers capitalized on this feature, and have implemented use of the “infinite scroll”, where there is no clear end-point to the consumption of media. More recently, Instagram and Youtube adjusted their main scrolling sections to organize by relevance, not by date, making the time spent on the app even more elusive, as there is no clear way four our eyes to identify a stopping point. 

Notifications and App icons have adapted to a warmer color scheme, as our eyes naturally gravitate towards reds and pinks over cooler tone colors. Moreover, notifications are often linked with our phones vibrating or even flashing lights to get our attention. This plays back into one of our earliest biological tendencies to pay attention to moving objects as a survival tactic. The list goes on and- clearly, these products are engineered to hold our attention. 

checking phones

Helpful Tips from Design Ethicists

As digital dependency becomes more of a hot button issue, a growing number of people are demanding that social media be designed in a more ethical fashion. Certain social networks such as Frendica and Mastodon are proposing a solution by being more decentralized. 

The hope is that the problem will take care of itself with open source communication since there won’t be any single entity engineering or policing the platform. Until improved technology arrises, here are a couple of tips from design ethicists on how to reduce your phone usage:

  1. Have your home screen (Or the first screen you see when entering your device) full of the bare necessities (Exclude Social Apps). Out of sight, out of mind, isn’t just a saying- The less we see of something, the less likely we are to engage with it. 
  2. Turn your phone colors to grayscale. The less aesthetically appealing your phone is, the less time you’ll spend on it. 
  3. Turn off as many notifications as possible. This can be difficult, especially with items such as email. As a stepping stone, reduce notifications strength: i.e instead of notifications producing vibrations, select banner notifications only. 

Above all, social media has vastly changed the way we live and interact with our environment. Social Media Ethicists have a growing responsibility to shape our consumption of media in a way that is morally sound. Social media is a great tool to connect, but it’s always a good idea to be aware of how you can be targeted digitally.

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User or Customer? Social Media Mining

Nowadays, everyone and their mother is on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it- in order to connect, you have to be online. Are these companies as benign as they seem? Or is that cute cat video you reposted revealing something about you that you’d otherwise keep private? Let’s take a look at social media marketing and how it affects us and businesses.

social data cart

What is Social Media Data?

Social media data, or social data, is any information obtained off of your social accounts used to target customers and/or inform choices. Advertisers can use this information on an individual basis, targeting products/services towards an individual to better suit their interests. Moreover, they can choose to use a pool of social data: Collecting implicit or explicit information from potential clients in order to develop their overall strategy. Social data doesn’t just include what you post personally. Information can be extrapolated from what you choose to scroll past, like/dislike, or in general, engage with.

How is Social Data collected?

In order to employ an effective business strategy, companies accumulate data in 3 main ways:

Direct Engagement – In this method, a business asks a targeted question to a user to extrapolate information. Youtube often employs a short survey where a user is asked to give feedback on a product/answer a short question before viewing the selected content. Many of the major social sites have adopted a poll feature, making it easier than ever for brands to take their questions directly to the customer.

Indirect Tracking – Here, a company can use indirect information, or information that you are not consciously sharing, to inform a decision. When consenting to “free” wifi at a local cafe, you may be consenting to sharing some of your activity while you are actively on a network. If you are a heavy user for a particular service/product, a company may use your social media information to see if there is a correlation between your usage and lifestyle. With this information, companies can better market to those who may really take to their product/service.

Purchased Data – Data is huge business. Search engines and websites such as Google are able to collect your search history, location information, etc. and sell it to other interested parties. Data brokers, companies that exist solely to mine data and sell to clients, are on the rise and generate more than $200 billion dollars within the industry annually.

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How Businesses Use Social Data

A business’ goal at its core is to sell a certain product/service. Social media makes it easier for businesses to do the following:

Advertising Strategy – The most obvious and most common use, social data is a great way for advertisers to determine what an ideal clientele looks like. With ample information, advertisers are now able to adjust their strategy as their clients change over time, and market with new, more engaging methods.

Content Production – Brands such as Nike, Coach, even Wendy’s regularly produce content on social media to peek their audience’s interest. Data mining makes it easier for businesses to see what kind of content their clients respond to the most, and what mediums translate to the most amount of new sales. However, since it is difficult to track which pieces of media turnover directly to sales, businesses use this strategy in conjunction with others. Photos/visually targeted ads are 4X as likely to produce sales in most cases, making Instagram a new hotbed for targeted content. Moreover, new features such as the “swipe up to purchase” and direct linking make shopping on social media easier than ever.

Direct Revenue Source – Some companies, even outside of the huge data broker conglomerates, generate income by the collection and selling of data. Social apps themselves have this principle embedded into their business model. As part of many app sign up agreements, consent is given to sell this data.

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Data Privacy Protection

As a consumer, it’s important to be aware of how these tactics can affect you on a day-to-day basis and what privacy protections you can implement should you choose to do so.

Privacy Settings – In general, social media apps having privacy settings that allow you to restrict the amount of data that can be collected. However, the act of being on these apps oftentimes acts as consent for data collection, so the only way to be truly “off the map” would be to not engage at all. It should be noted, that data collection is not necessarily insidious or detrimental in nature. You should set up your social media in accordance to your comfort levels and values, being conscious of the inherent collection.

Reducing Usage – If you are concerned with data collection being excessive or intrusive, a good way to counteract your targeting as a consumer is to reduce usage. The less information out there, the less information there is to extract. Protect yourself by reducing your connections- Are you 2k “friends” on Facebook truly people you know? Information is extracted from those you connect with in relation to you, not just yourself.

Legislation – As data privacy becomes more of a hot button issue, several countries are beginning to put in place data protections. For example, the European Union has put out legislation outlining companies’ collection of data. The CCPA act in California accomplishes essentially the same thing, and employs an opt-out program for those citizens hoping to have less of a data footprint. In general, this is a difficult space as the business of data is relatively new, so the overall effect on society remains to be seen. Moreover, the internet is often considered public domain, meaning that it is not easily regulated since it has no physical base or territory. Regardless, it’s inevitable that this issue will be brought more to the public agenda as consumers continue to demand privacy rights and disclosure.

All in all, social platforms provide us with the opportunity to connect with anyone- The advent of the internet allows us to dial into lifestyles across the world, develop empathy from firsthand experiences, and share our daily lives with those we love the most. Moreover, it provides us with tools to market our businesses like never before. User tools are constantly being curated to improve advertising and keep the user engaged. The trade-off of data collection may very well be worth it. As consumers, it is our responsibility to remain as conscientious as possible regarding our data usage. In this ever changing industry, the full scope of social data and its implications remain to be seen.

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