Social Media and Reality

The reality of the importance of our subjectivity isn’t meant as a criticism. It’s meant to explain how we are shaped by our experiences and can be influenced in ways that we might not even be aware of because of our history and the information we are exposed to in our daily lives.

OK, so let’s now talk about SOCIAL MEDIA — the main focus of this blog post.

If we’re being honest — most of us use Social Media for things like communication or entertainment. I use it — not a lot but certainly every day. I bet you do as well. It occupies an important place in our modern world — a tool that allows us to connect with other similarly-minded people in ways not otherwise possible. As with most tools, it has the ability to be both a positive influence as well as a negative one.

Social Media is designed to influence our perception of the world. It is engineered to respond to us — our clicks, our swipes and our pauses. It uses our history with it to provide us with other similar material.

Let’s read that last sentence again …

It uses our history with it to provide us with similar material.

It actually learns from us and provides us with what we likely want to see. You’ve noticed it. You’re on Facebook and see an ad for a product you were just looking up earlier. That isn’t by accident — it’s purposeful on the part of the social media app.

I recently watched the documentary “The Social Dilemma” which shares the work experiences of people who were a part of various Social Media design teams – engineers, marketing professionals, design ethicists and others — and how their work was focused on finding ways to keep you tapping and clicking. The Netflix documentary explores how Social Media is engineered to provide us, in real time, what we want in terms of content and context.

The Social Dilemma – A Netflix Documentary

The longer you hang around on the Social Media app the more money that can be made from its advertisers. This goal is not evil, but is focused on the real-world reality of a private business needing to ensure a profit to stay viable. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

However, what the documentary explores in great depth are the negative implications of this purposeful engineering — how the program algorithms for the app actually create a possible addiction to it with a corresponding shift in your behavior. Teams of engineers are hired to create these algorithms which encourage you to stay connected — to ‘like’ an image or respond to a ‘poke’. The algorithms trace your clicks, swipes and gaze time on a particular text, image or movie. It then ‘learns’ from you and provides you with more texts, images or movies that might interest you which they hope cause you to hang around for even longer, or even return after an absence.

Ever notice that your Social Media apps will reach out to you if you haven’t been there for awhile? This is AI (Artificial Intelligence) in action.

I’ve previously blogged about AI (Artificial Intelligence is Here — Time to Buckle Up!, Feb 2018). It’s worth returning to the AI definition I used back then:

AI is about enhancing human capabilities, rather than trying to replicate the full scope of human intelligence.  It’s not Human VS Machine … It’s Human AND Machine working together .  It’s not about necessarily replacing human actions, but instead augmenting our actions to make us more efficient, accurate and timely. 

The cognitive computer systems that are the brains behind AI are being built to actually UNDERSTAND data, REASON about the data, LEARN from new data, and then INTERACT with us about the data.

It is important to emphasize that AI is not inherently bad. It already plays a tremendously important role in our day-to-day world. Some positive examples of AI:

  • Doctors use AI to diagnose medical conditions more accurately;
  • Pilots train on AI-based simulators;
  • You can call the nearest pharmacy by just asking your phone to find the nearest one while you’re driving;
  • You can play your favourite music, get a muffin recipe or plan for your vacation by asking Siri or Alexa for some help.

Back to the Social Media experience …

I received an email the other day:

“On the social-media site I’m on I’ve found a ton of people who feel exactly like I do.”

I have no reason to doubt this statement and the reality of this person’s experience. However, it does raise a question for me. Does this perspective represent an accurate picture, or has the belief been constructed and sculpted by Social Media?

One of the most important features of Social Media apps is their ability to connect you with other ‘users’ who have the same interests. In essence, you can find yourself immersed in a world with other like-minded people that shows you what you want to see and hear, over and over again. So long as we understand that we may not be looking at an accurate and fulsome representation of the world, then these apps have a really useful place in our lives.

So, taking this all of into account, I do sometimes reflect on our current world that is filled with confrontational politics and opinions, and I wonder:

  • Do we recognize that the Social Media we are accessing for our information is just a tool, and not a proportionally accurate representation of our world?
  • Do we risk devolving into a culture that is less open-minded to other perspectives and possibilities?
  • Has Social Media negatively influenced our ability to be a society which is welcoming, receptive and kind?

Just wondering …

2 thoughts on “Social Media and Reality

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