Living on social media and bartering our privacy for it

Facebook grew 600% in the last 10 years, boasting 2.45 billion monthly active users, who nearly make up one-third of the world’s human population.
WhatsApp and Facebook messenger icons are seen on an iPhone.(REUTERS)
WhatsApp and Facebook messenger icons are seen on an iPhone.(REUTERS)
Published on Dec 29, 2019 11:22 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

As universally agreed upon, the decade past was defined more by social media than anything else. We got more social media than we could accommodate in our ever-expanding screen time, though the major platforms of the last decade stagnated along the way. Facebook remained in the news throughout -- its rise, fall and seeming irrelevance keenly watched and meticulously documented. Facebook grew 600% in the last 10 years, boasting 2.45 billion monthly active users, who nearly make up one-third of the world’s human population. But in March 2018, Facebook was exposed to have traded the personal data, including psychological profiles of 87 million of its users, to a political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, which reportedly used targeted politics ads to influence the results of 2016’s American elections. A month later, Mark Zuckerberg told the US Congress the fault was not all Facebook’s: “Every single time you go to share something on Facebook, whether it’s a photo in Facebook, or a message, every single time, there’s a control right there about who you’re going to be sharing it with... and you can change that and control that in line.” The damage was done. Not only is Facebook adding fewer users every new quarter, but many of those already on it are using it less and less: it is too intrusive, too unironic, too much from the 2000s. Millennials are reported to be leaving it at an alarming rate, with more than 11 million in the US opting out in the last two years.

They aren’t spending that much on time on Twitter, a microblogging platform from 2007, either. In 2016, the company reported its first quarter with no growth in users, who remained at 328 million, since it went public in 2013. Today, even as people continue to go on Twitter to raise their voices and make a noise, more and more are pulling away thanks to trolls, and the toxicity and the takedown culture. In 2018, its founder Jack Dorsey himself laid out the factors causing the exodus. “We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”

What people did do with their time in 2010s was send messages on WhatsApp, a chat service owned by Facebook, that showed up in 2009 and registered 1 billion users by 2017. Today, according to its internal estimates, 55 billion text messages are sent on WhatsApp every day – plus 4.5 billion photos and 1 billion videos. A large chunk of that is attributed to India, where 230 million people use WhatsApp, making the country the messaging platform’s biggest market. They reportedly send and save so many “good morning” messages that one in three smartphone users in India started running out of space every day. These messages were often accompanied by visuals of flowers and babies and, at times, sounds of temple bells and chirping birds. Unfortunately, Indians weren’t only circulating good wishes via WhatsApp, but also rumours, fake news and hateful propaganda, often at the behest of political forces. The consequences were extreme in some cases, from death threats to actual murders — in 2018 alone, more than two dozen people were lynched by mobs spurred by nothing more than rumours sent over WhatsApp. Fake news spread over WhatsApp, whether from ignorance or malice, wreaked havoc across the developing world, in fact – inciting violence and allegedly impacting election results from Brazil to Nigeria.

Not all was dark and depressing in the social media universe of the 2010s, however. Alienated from Facebook and Twitter, millennials populated Instagram en masse. Launched in October 2010, Instagram gained 100,000 users in a week, becoming the fastest growing apps of all time, and, bought by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion, hit the one billion user mark in 2018. The platform promised freedom from status updates and hot takes. On Instagram, people posted about whatever they were doing, wherever they were, in the form of photos and videos -- eating, travelling, exercising, partying. The fancier your life, the better it looked on Instagram, an aspect that led to the cult of influencers -- people whose lives looked so enviable that brands began to pay them to showcase their products in their posts, from hair oil to handbags. Towards the end of the decade, influencers took over Instagram and everyone else felt left out, so this platform, too, was forced to rethink its priorities, a process currently underway.

By 2019, it became clear that Facebook was seemingly outdated, Twitter toxic, WhatApp dangerous and Instagram fake. That left us with TikTok, a platform ruled by teenagers. TikTok was launched in 2017, and the following year, its parent company, the Chinese media business ByteDance, acquired, a platform for sharing music videos, for $1 billion and merged it with TikTok. The app has since been downloaded by one billion people worldwide. On TikTok, a platform built around the sharing of short, quirky videos, your popularity depends not on who you are but what you can do in 15 seconds. But the millions of people across the world who are posting their best acts under 15 seconds are judged not by their followers or filter bubbles but an algorithm whose workings remain mysterious. This, too, has created its own set of problems, including the instinct to perform extreme, even life-threatening, acts in order to be picked up by the algorithm.

Will the next decade be better or worse for social media? The answer must lie in an algorithm.


    Snigdha Poonam is a national affairs writer for Hindustan Times. She has previously written for a wide range of Indian and international publications on Indian politics, society and culture.

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