Why I’m afraid of social media timelines and you should be too.


If you think scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed is no big deal, take a moment to imagine the offline equivalent:

The posters on your train to work keep changing in line with the items you purchased last week.

An anonymous colleague  drops clippings of interesting articles on your desk. You have no idea how they know about your fascination for modern art and dancing hamsters.

Political canvassers representing views just a little more extreme than yours randomly appear when you’re in your favourite thrift store, or browsing through magazines at the newsagent.

We all know algorithms aren’t actual people. But they might as well be, because the information they gather is sold to real companies, which use it to make you buy stuff or influence the way you think.

Social media is a dream come true for advertisers. Rather than hoping a random billboard might grab your attention, they simply buy the right to find you by following your online cookie trail.

And as much as we like to consider ourselves free-thinking, independent individuals, big data and advances in statistics have made our behaviour eerily easy to predict.

This cringeworthy video designed to celebrate big data implies that its main advantages are to help us remember our friends’ birthdays, choose clothes and source free cupcakes.

I’m aware of the enormous real benefits of big data – like helping to make roads safer, improve healthcare and stop the spread of diseases.

But its commercial use presents a moral dilemma.

As we know from economic psychology, people generally base their decisions on the information most readily available to them. It’s called the availability heuristic and as common sense would suggest, means that we often act on the first thing that comes into our head.

The first thing that comes into our head is usually the information we’ve been exposed to over and over again.

Articles in our timeline which reinforce our existing worldview.

Photographs similar to ones we’ve reacted strongly to in the past.

Groups of people we’ve associated with before.

In other words, a repetition of who we are and the experiences we’ve already had.

The use of mass data sets coupled with algorithms adds a new dimension, without us even realising it.

An essay by WIRED editor David Rowan, which appears in a book titled “What should we be worried about?” opens:

“In a big-data world, it takes an exponentially rising curve of statistics to bring home just how subjugated we now are to the data crunchers’ powers.” He goes on to lament that:

 “Any citizen lacking a basic understanding of, and at least, minimal access to, the new algorithmic tools, will increasingly be disadvantaged in vast areas of economic, political, and social participation.”

The problem with cookie-led advertising and links generated by algorithms is that they are covert. There is no one to hold accountable for them.

There is no guy with a roller pasting an ad to the wall of an underground station.

If we open up a print newspaper, we know that every other reader is going to see the same advertisement for a high-power vacuum cleaner on page 6.

We can also reason that another publication might instead be trying to sell readers wellness retreats or flat-screen televisions.

Individually tailored timelines remove that certainty and erode our biggest antidote to advertising: collective cynicism.

Since the links and advertisements we’re seeing change from one second to the next, it’s  impossible to develop a coherent narrative about their presentation, let alone construct a common picture of what’s happening.

So, what’s the solution?

Sure, we could quit social media altogether.

But it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What we really need to do is to be aware of the extent our world view is being shaped by the things people pay for us to be exposed to online.

That is the first step towards reclaiming our capacity for independent thought.

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7 thoughts on “Why I’m afraid of social media timelines and you should be too.

  1. Great post. Note the double potential.New social media technology can provide a decentralized model we can use to sidestep the oppressive formations of current top-down governance, bringing us one step closer to a communal vision where human values replace the consumerist values force-fed to us by the Corporate State. Or our current masters can hijack this technology to enslave us more deeply to those consumerist values that serve the profiteers of capitalism. I’m hoping for the first, but as an oddsmaker I’d give the edge to the second possibility.

    • Thanks Daedalus. I think you’re right about the two potential alternative uses of this kind of technology. On the whole, I think the benefits outweigh the risks. But only in a society where people are sufficiently educated about how it works. The more time we spend on social media, the more attention we need to pay about how the information we’re exposed to there is being filtered and tailored to us and no one else.

  2. And we’re only now just seeing the tiniest leak in the dike, wait until the new “super” chips come out and computers get exponentially faster and are able to crunch mind-boggling data. It’s exciting, but a little frightening, too. But they have a long way to go with current methods of anticipating our needs and wants. Many of my ad banners are for things, like you say, I bought last week, or a hotel room I booked a month ago!

    • Yes, we’re definitely only at the beginning. It certainly is exciting but as you say, the faster the technology progresses, the more we need to pay attention to how it’s shaping our world view. I worry that my usual patters online are being continuously reinforced without my conscious awareness. I’m now making more of an effort to click on things I wouldn’t immediately be drawn to, so that I can avoid that reinforcement effect.

  3. I am not sure, to be honest, if social media are good or not. If you profit of them or not.
    Commercial is all over the world, not only in capitalistic countries.
    Let me tell you something about my last trip to Jerusalem 3 weeks ago. Arabs on the market made also lots of commercial. They tried people to buy at their shop.
    They do it for more than hundreds of years.
    O.K. ……….. new media are new media. But once I looked for a nice (cheap) flight to South-Korea.
    I saw on an social media site afterwards comercials with good flights to S-Korea.
    I was very happy about that. It was fu****g cheap.
    I am not interessted to buy women shoes. I don´t get commercials about women shoes.
    I am interessted in other things. I get Information relating to this stuff.
    So I now, it is one the one side horrible, but on the other side, it could be helpfull
    Things are changing
    Hendrik

    • Absolutely and you make a really good point by using the example of “unwanted” advertising on the streets of Jerusalem. In general I am a huge fan of social media. What does worry me though is that we may not be aware of just how much our thoughts and desires are being shaped by unknown commercial forces. If I’m only ever seeing the stuff I’ve shown interest in before, I risk simply reinforcing the world-view I’ve already got. It raises questions of individual responsibility too. Most of all,I think it’s important to be aware of how our timelines are being constructed. Thanks for weighing in 🙂

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