Social Networks as Editors-in-Chief of Your Life
A week ago Twitter introduced “Show me the best Tweets first” option. The new algorithm will choose what will you see on your timeline based on (supposedly) your previous use of Twitter. The only good thing about it is that you can opt-out of it. The rest is pure evil. First to mess with your timeline was Facebook. Then Pinterest followed, with additional annoyance of “picked for you” – recommendations that you never subscribed to. Unlike Twitter, these two won’t let you turn off the algorithmic timelines.
They all say it’s to make your timelines more interesting and relevant. And, partly, that is true. After all, if your timeline (by now bloated with posts from thousands of friends and contacts) is more relevant and interesting, you’ll spend more time there, scrolling and interacting. That’s their business and that’s what makes them money.
OK, fair enough. That’s what any media company would do, whether it is producing or crowdsourcing the content. But it’s not just about that. It’s not only about money, it’s about power as well. And that’s where the evil lies.
Let’s repeat for the millionth time: It is 21st century and the information is power. That’s was always true but it gets more and more important in our present way of life. Traditional media knew and exploited that since its beginnings. With the emergence of the Internet, we managed to escape them. Social networks were a nice and convenient way to spread the news and information that had no way of showing into newspapers, radio and TV. Also, they were a quick way to filter the news about the things that you actually care about (or, at least, that your friends care about). You choose your friends and contacts, you get information they share. For a while, everything was nice.
But social media wasn’t a dawn of a new free world. It was just a change of the big players. Thirty years ago it was TV stations who controlled what you know about the world. Recently, Facebook and Twitter applied for the position of your personal editor-in-chief. You had no saying in it, but they got the job.
It’s not that we are not aware who are we dealing with. Facebook is notorious for it’s censorship of everything and anything, from breastfeeding to people using pseudonyms. After all, Mark Zuckerberg decided what would be the social norms now.
It can, and does, go much much further than that. Just remember the Arab Spring and the role of Twitter in it. People still debate if that role was a good or a bad one, but that’s beside the point here. Problem is that a private company was a communication backbone of a turnmoil on the other continent. They had a monopoly on transfer of the information. Like that wasn’t too much, now they want a descrete right to decide which information gets through and which doesn’t. A social network with control over what people think.
Well, it gets worse.
They not only decide what you think. They get to decide how you feel. Few years ago, Facebook run an experiment to prove it:
For one week in January 2012, data scientists skewed what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged into its service. Some people were shown content with a preponderance of happy and positive words; some were shown content analyzed as sadder than average. And when the week was over, these manipulated users were more likely to post either especially positive or negative words themselves.
Legal and ethical concerns aside, it’s not that we don’t know that emotions are contagious. What is important here is that somebody is actively experimenting with it. For pure science’s sake? I don’t think so.
It turns out that some guy in California can make you, or any group of people, feel great or shitty tomorrow on his whim. Or, more likely, make you feel good or pissed at something specific according to somebody’s plan. Brainwashing and hypnosis on massive scale are just a push of a button away.
Your life just got a new editor-in-chief.