Last week we explored the question of whether or not tech companies are living up to their responsibility to provide accessible terms and policies. Today we’re going to talk about another area that raises the question of user responsibility vs. platform responsibility…
The Attention Economy
Attention economy is a term used to describe the business model of most social media platforms today. Facebook and Twitter are able to provide their services for free by selling ad space, much like TV and radio. But unlike TV and radio, where ads are played at specific times and geared toward the main demographic tuning in, ads shown on social media can be much more personalized, catered to your personal interests and placed optimally for your engagement.
But how do they achieve that level of personalization? As you probably know by now, they watch you very, very closely. Each like, click and hover is fed into the algorithms that predict your likely interests and behaviors. This means that the more time you spend on the platform, and the more engaged you are during that time, the more information they can gather, and the more they can use that information to show you just the right ads.
Aside from the creepy surveillance, none of the rest of it sounds all that nefarious on its face, but there is still more to this ethical dilemma. In order to keep you as engaged as possible, platforms will use psychological tricks to influence you to stay on longer than you probably intended. From the red notification alerts that — often inaccurately — lead you to believe there’s something that needs your attention, to the bottomless feed that leaves you feeling like you just might miss something if you don’t keep scrolling, to the way videos will begin to play automatically, one right after the other, so that you feel almost hypnotized by them, all the big social media platforms have figured out the best tricks to get you to stay just a little longer.
None of this is illegal, and it would be quite an over-step to make it so, but is there more to the equation than just legality? Cigarette companies are not legally responsible for the health outcomes for lifelong smokers, and casinos aren’t held liable for gamblers’ debts. But we start to look at it differently if cigarette companies and casinos are gearing their advertising toward children as young as thirteen, selling the social, emotional and economic benefits of smoking and gambling, and standing by the notion that there are no proven harms caused by their products.
The harms caused by some of Silicon Valley’s tactics are becoming increasingly apparent. The companies’ attempts to deflect responsibility can’t help but bring to mind the opening scene of Thank You For Smoking, in which the Spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies claims that tobacco companies care about a young teen diagnosed with lung cancer, since it is clearly in their best interests that he live a long life and continue smoking.
Personal responsibility is both the privilege and the burden of each of us, but gone are the days when doctors would recommend their patients take up smoking, or when advertisers could make any claim about their products without repercussion. It’s time we start evaluating what role and responsibility technology and social media have in society today, and raising the standards for the benefit of future generations.