The Social Media Economy: How Every Post is Exploiting You

Every social media platform claims to be free - but what are you really paying when you sign up?

As technology has advanced through the 21st century, the internet has become intertwined with our everyday lives, to the point where many people cannot imagine their lives without it. Many of us would see social media as a benefit to our lives, with how much easier it is to connect to people, whether it be friends across the country or the to the news around the world. As we all know, though, social media isn’t truly free. In the end, these platforms are still companies that are making profits – so how do they make their money?  

Simply put, social media platforms are not truly ‘free’, and they take advantage of their users and sell the data points that are generated from their use of the platform. This is much more commonplace in the industry than expected. For example, when Facebook was forced to defend their selling of data, their response to it was basically that everyone else does the same thing with their users’ dataMost users don’t realise how normal this method of making profit is, and people who are may not realise how many websites do this, even those with subscriptions that imply that the subscription costs are how they primarily make money. And this method has proven to be beneficial; Mark Zuckerberg has an astonishing net worth of around 96 billion dollars from his ventures in Facebook

“Facebook” by MoneyBlogNewz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Because of this, social media has birthed its own form of profits, changing the modern economy. Technology has enabled this development in the economy, as creators are pushed to develop forms of profit-earning techniques (John 2016). Most previous forms of economy relied on participants spending their own money, but as social media is free to anyone with a wifi connection and a piece of technology that can connect to it, it births a new form of profit that does not rely on money, but instead, on time spent on the platform. Many people have noted that social media platforms are designed to be addictive, ensuring that users can provide several points of data to the company.  

The leader of both social media and data selling is Facebook. Launched by Mark Zuckerberg, the site has branched out from just being one platform to owning several, such as Instagram, another incredibly large platform, and Whatsapp, a competitive instant messaging platformAlthough it is a platform that is innovating within its field, it has not done this without its fair share of issues that have arisen.  

Although the modern internet landscape often feels like something completely new from how the internet behaved in the early 2000’smany forms of the current landscape we see have been developing since the dawn of the 21st century. Facebook, although only gaining mass popularity in 2012, was launched in 2004. This is around the same time as MySpace’s debut, which ended up being the social media titan for the rest of the decade, and the website’s layout has become iconic among adults who grew up in this time.  

The biggest issue with the sharing economy is that users of these ‘free’ products do not realise what they end up giving up to large corporations when using these platforms. One of the most renowned privacy issues is the Cambridge Analytica scandal; one of 2018’s biggest issues, and one that Mark Zuckerberg has yet to resolveThe issue lied in how the private information of Facebook users was given to Cambridge Analytica so that users could be identified and influenced for the 2016 U.S. electionsHowever, users were kept in the dark about their data being used in this way

A photo of Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower for Cambridge Analytica.
“Christopher Wylie, Director of Research, Cambridge Analytica (2013–14)” by Chatham House, London is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the most interesting points of Facebook’s argument against the Cambridge Analytica allegations was that users consent to their data being used in research in this way. This specific phrase, that users “consent to this access [to their account details] when they create a Facebook account”, is one that is terrifying and intriguing. This clause of consenting to any data users provide being used by researchers without outward discussion between the participant is one that steers into a very grey territory of online consent with data points. Although Facebook argues that it is something agreed upon, this is most likely buried within Facebook’s Terms and Conditions – and who reads those? Even outside of personal experience with these, studies have been conducted that users “often ignore privacy and terms of service policies for social networking services. 

 Within the USyd community, Facebook is not just a social media platform. Facebook also behaves as a requirement for many USyd-based occurences, such as for group projects as the primary method of contact through Messenger, or for society events due to the event section. Although I initially deleted Facebook off in my high school years due to privacy fears, I eventually had to reconnect myself to the platform due to the normalcy of its use within the community. This fear is especially prominent when it comes to advertising. Although it has always been somewhat of a joke that Facebook’s ads will promote something you just searched up on another tab, the joke has an amount of truth to it. Once you become aware of what Facebook is doing with your data and how they are earning money through your use of it, it becomes incredibly off-putting to continue using Facebook. 

Although I’ve primarily talked about Facebook, the same is true for other platforms. One platform that is most renowned for ‘knowing’ its users is TikTok, and how the algorithm of that platform is created perfectly to every user, to the point of being described as ‘scarily accurate’.

Whether you like it or not, social media has become a mainstay in our modern life. When people choose to avoid these platforms, they often get called pretentious or behind on the times. This social media economy of our data being sold off as the price for free platforms has become so normalised to a point wherein it is not a valid reason to stay off social media. This brings up the question of whether or not this type of economy should be as normal as it currently is in our society. Cambridge Analytica was a good step towards more awareness of this issue, but it is still not widespread enough and should be talked about more heavily – not just in academic circles like ours, but to any casual user of social media platforms.

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Current Usyd student.