There is a paradox with modern technology as it relates to social networks. At once, technology has connected humans like never before. With monthly active users of 1.23 billion on Facebook and 100 million on Snapchat, it is effortless to connect with your friends and family regardless of their location. At the same time, however, we have never been more vulnerable. Technology has made previously private information public. The consequence is not just an invasion of privacy, but also a commercialization of our personal spaces and relationships.
Tech giants like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook have openly admitted that they cooperated with the NSA in collecting user data from thousands of emails and phone calls. However, these same tech giants continue to collect and store our personal data in ways that put us in dangerous situations. For example, our smartphones constantly store data about our location so that we can easily share our whereabouts with friends in our contact book. However, this mechanism also makes it easier for strangers to hack our phones and access our location files.
Furthermore, the fact that we are increasingly placing our social lives on the Internet also opens us up to emotional manipulation. A controversial Facebook study involved the manipulation of the Facebook newsfeed of 689,003 users as a part of a psychological study. Facebook found that when they exposed users to less positive expressions in their news feed, users would in fact post fewer positive comments and more negative ones. Whether these comments actually reflected users’ inner emotional conditions or not, Facebook was tangibly able to influence how users want to feel and how users thought they should be feeling. At the end of the day, we have become vulnerable to the control that Facebook has over our perception of self, others and our emotional states based on the information it selectively reveals.
But more than vulnerability, the advent of information technology has also begun to commercialize our personal spaces and relationships. Take recent developments in the so-called “sharing” economy, a term used to describe peer-to-peer economic transactions. Technology has allowed us to rent a room through Airbnb or catch a taxi from a peer through Uber. New apps even allow users to rent a space in a stranger’s dining table or even pay individuals to run errands like grocery shopping or dog-walking. Technology is displacing hotels, restaurants and service-based industries into peer-to-peer transactions. And, while this trend brings more “sharing” to the market, it also brings more market to “sharing” by transforming previous acts of kindness and generosity into market transactions. The decentralization of the market into households will fundamentally change how communities are built, undergirding previously platonic opportunities to bond with neighbors and local community members with a buyer-seller relationship.
In addition to commercializing our peer interactions, information technology also enables the market to distort our trusted role models into corporate figureheads. The new trend in marketing is creating user-specific advertising. To that end, a Stanford startup initiated by juniors called Neoreach aims to connect “influencers” (Youtube celebrities, industry experts, or anyone has a large following) to industry products specific to their viewer base. For example, an online celebrity who reviews young people’s TV shows would receive a share of money from companies like Netflix or HBO to promote their new shows to the viewer base. One could envision how there might be a tendency for these “influencers” to become beholden to the products they advertise rather than provide an objective analysis. And, unlike TV commercials where it is clear that Peyton Manning was hired to sell Papa John’s pizza, online advertising is more subtle and deceptive. On places like YouTube, a viewer could watch a whole segment from an “influencer” and not even realize it was an advertisement because the commercial is, in fact, hidden in the content.
Modern information technology has connected us, but also has opened our lives up in a way that makes us more vulnerable to coercion and more susceptible to the commercialization of our personal lives. However, the power that external agents (like Facebook, identity thieves, or the market) have over us is only the power that we give them. Increasingly, we are placing more and more of ourselves into the virtual world of our computers and smartphones than we are into the real physical world around us. Our role models have become Internet bloggers, our friendships revolve around Internet messaging and communication and our daily routines are patterned around our technology (i.e., think about the last time you had a moment alone without your iPhone).
If we agree that technology might be encroaching into zones that we don’t like, we only need to make the choice to limit our participation in it.
Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilman ‘at’ stanford.edu.