It all began with the coronavirus lockdown.
As the lockdown kept getting extended, we as a family went completely online. Finally. I began to make all payments online – water, electricity, phones, house tax, staff salaries. The list of daily essentials would be Whatsapped to the grocer and payment transferred. Amazon and Flipkart sent us all the stuff we needed ~ sanitizer, face masks, vitamins and zinc, writing pads, shampoo, house slippers, walker for my dad-in-law, bindis for my mom, dog food, plant manure… even raakhees.
A simple swipe. For anything we needed. Any time of the day. From any device in the hand. At discounted rates. Guaranteed delivery. No driving, no parking hassles. No haggling, no physical contact.
Buying stuff had never been so convenient, so easy. And online shopping never so addictive.
Even as the city unlocks, my first instinct now is to check availability of things online before I venture out to the market. The wonders of online shopping have not been lost on Makku, the young girl who helps me around the house. She sits me down to buy things I am too lazy to shop for ~ microwave cover, shoe polish brushes, buckets and mugs, toilet caddy, ice cube trays, oil funnel… It is another matter that in the process, I have also bought an artisanal tea pot, milk frother, meat tenderizer, non-stick pans, makeup… other splendid stuff.
Late one night, I found amazing satin tulip pants on Instagram; one click, and they were home the next afternoon! It is an Aladdin’s cave out there… and I am bewitched by its treasures!
And then I saw the documentary film, The Social Dilemma, on Netflix (see note at end of post) that warns me: The wonders come at a price.
Big Tech experts in The Social Dilemma confirm allegations that have been around for some years: Corporations track our behavior on social networks. Every time we share feelings, ideas, thoughts and experiences on social media, each time we like a post or upload a pic or watch a video or tweet or do anything online, it is tracked. Every single thing. Our likes and dislikes. Our opinions. Our quirks. Our preferences. Our leanings. All are monitored and recorded. What gets our attention, how long we look at it, how we react to it, all is tracked. Anything and everything about us that helps social platforms learn what makes us tick.
But why would anyone want to understand us?
Because we are consumers. Potential buyers. Selling is the most difficult thing on earth and if the seller can understand and predict what we are likely to buy, they can position their stuff with sure-shot success.
Understandably, profit is the key motive of any commercial enterprise. The internet today is one big giant mall, a market place that did not exist until a few years ago. What makes the current system damaging is that the business model is disguised in the garb of social media.
We may think of social networking as the best way to connect and share our life with family and friends; the reality is quite menacing. All our data on social networks is fed into giant computers and analysed using algorithms. As technology advances, these algorithms are becoming better and smarter in selecting and showing us posts that will attract us, interest us, captivate us. It is their job to find out how they can catch our attention as much as possible. And it is this attention, this mindfulness of ours that social platforms sell to advertisers. This is how these corporations make money and are the richest in the world today. This is why we get FB and Insta and Twitter free because… someone else (the seller of goods) is paying for us.
We are unwittingly laying our lives bare on social platforms and this information is being mined to produce marketable predictions about what we will do/read/buy/believe next. It is a surveillance system that is, in the words of some experts, “extracting and exploiting what’s inside our heads” and controlling what we see. We remain unawares as our behavior changes, ever so little, ever so gradually. It is this imperceptible change in our behaviour that the social media platform seeks. And we happily let them do it.
Innocuously, we are being manipulated. And it is a part of a well-thought out conspiracy.
Their strategy is simple.
They first attract my attention.
My phone chimes. The notification bar blinks, and I, almost always, leave whatever I am doing to scroll down photos, invites, current events, messages, FB posts… I can’t seem to help myself. Precious minutes go by as I check new posts, respond to comments, send birthday wishes… until my attention is caught by something I like. I explore the entire category, marking things, checking out sizes… I scroll down and see fascinating stuff like the innovative toilet brush that scours out germs from the farthest reaches, the DYMO label maker that syncs with a smartphone…The onslaught continues. By design. This is how social media hooks my attention and keeps me engaged.
Then they begin to coax me. When I show interest in a product – be it dresses or ice cream or reflex balls, the same brand appears on top of my Facebook feed, my Insta feed the very next day… I must have watched the 30 second video for the expensive toilet brush at least 15 times! If this is not enticing me, what is?
Then social media tempts. With discounts. With emails from Amazon that urge me to place the order right away. Uff! Transparent, double-sided tape at 40% discount! Shoes at 20% off! Cash back rewards!
It’s human nature. When I see the same stuff again and again, day after day, I am likely to give in to the temptation. I finally bought the toilet brush when I saw a large discount on it the following week. Without me realizing when the seduction became coercion and the relentless pursuit led to my capitulation!
Which the social media platform knew and intended all along. This is persuasive technology at its best. These companies have spent billions of dollars in understanding our psychology; they know how to tempt us, how to persuade us, how to get us to do something they want us to do, and have built it into their technology. These companies are behaviour change geniuses. And we thought insurance agents are best at it!
My screen time on social networking sites over the last week was almost three hours per day! For a person who professes to be busy and always short on time, this is a horrifying revelation! And nothing short of hara-kiri!
Enough to shake me out of my stupor and ask myself:
Why am I checking out new posts on social media ever so often?
Am I a puppet in the hands of these corporations? A lab rat? A zombie?
Why am I becoming so materialistic? When did I lose my sense of objectivity?
Which leads me to the more worrying questions:
How good will my willpower be in resisting the lure of social media?
How can I hope to retain my sanity against supercomputers and their exponentially advancing artificial intelligence?
I suppose realization is always the first step.
PS: Would you like to share your experiences with social media?
About the new Netflix release The Social Dilemma
This docudrama explores the rise, over the past twenty years, of social platforms such as Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, WeChat and other services like YouTube, Quora, Snapchat, Pinterest, WhatsApp and many more. The film discusses, simply and succinctly, the impact of these social media from the viewpoints of technology experts, researchers and analysts from Silicon Valley, universities and think tanks.
The film also explains how, with its far reach and complete understanding of human psyche, social media has been able to bring like-minded people together and program them to behave in the nefarious interests of certain individuals; how it has affected real world emotions, moulded views, and triggered desired behaviour without ever triggering the users’ awareness; how easy it has been to radicalize society on the lines of race and religion, pursuits and preferences.