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Social networks and us: a Faustian perspective.

Notes on draft 1: ‘Excellent work.
If you want to perfect this essay, revisit the use of “I believe”, especially this instance which is in need of rewriting or ‘evidence’ as support: I believe that this has long term effects on the ways all content (outside these networks as well!) is designed, on the way we react to all kinds of content, as well as on our attention spans, and our emotional responses.
Finally, and especially for the sake of practising academic integrity, it would be good to mention the sources of what was covered this semester, e.g. “We’ve shed some light on the importance of choosing sources throughout the semester.”’

This post aims to explore “The risks of and ingenuity in social media”.

Faust: “Stay, Mephistophilis, and tell me, what good will my soul do thy lord?”
Mephistophilis: “Enlarge his kingdom.”

We have described our relationship with technology and social networks using the, perhaps hackneyed but very appropriate, term Faustian bargain, highlighting that there is indeed a price we pay for all the boons and convenience we’ve come to depend upon. Faust’s archetypal bargain is painted with easily understandable strokes, dramatically using the evergreen concept of good vs. evil; the choice he has to make is, in fact, very clear-cut – yet the learned Faust still gets swindled. The bargains we make, along with their consequences, are not as simple. Faust struggles attempting to write and sign the contract using his own blood, but all we have to do is place our thumb on a perfectly conveniently placed ACCEPT button.

Just like that. Our online souls (ownership of the content we create and post, our privacy, our perception of ourselves with relation to our community and many other of their aspects) now belong to Mr. Big-Techilis, and he is free to convert them to capital as he pleases, without any repercussions. He craves capital, but what do we crave? Why do we remain in the realm of social media apps, and how are our online chains crafted so artfully and effectively?

We’ve started tackling these questions through our site and forum posts. For example, Plusone posted on the forum asking:” Should we delete our social accounts?”. They mention that social media “…gained popularity in such a way that many cannot imagine their lives without it. Many can only see life only through their phones and are not able to talk with other people in person.”, following this claim up by considering more negative and some positive aspects of social media, and concluding that, perhaps, we can replace meaningless social media usage with some better activity. I believe that this is the stance most people share: aware of some of the bad aspects, but not too certain about things.

In a reply to this same post, Mmmpast note that “This question has sparked off numerous viewpoints on the matter recently due to a multitude of reasons…”, and they take a, seemingly radically, pro-social-media stance. They list a number of good uses of social media, and claim that “The social media phenomenon offers a lot, if one knows how to take advantage of it. You don’t have to be consumed by it, devour it instead.”

Though the thought of devouring instead of consuming seems… well… terrifying to me (to make a joke and be overly dramatic, it reminds me of the “Evil Angel” character in Doctor Faustus), the argument they present is elaborated, and champions another common stance on this issue.

In another post on“Social Media and Mental Health” by Djaks, the group Tesla seem to take a third, more critical approach towards social networks, presenting many of its negative aspects, and concluding that “…these disadvantages of social media and constant exposure to strangers’ posts and insights into their lives online, will only continue to grow and outweigh the advantages.”; they ask: “Is everything as dark as it seems to be now or are there more optimistic views on this?”. Their question is answered in the previous paragraph.

We can see that, even within our not-so-large community, there are many differing stances on this issue. An issue taken seriously. And yet, though we are aware of the negative, not a single post radically advocates deleting social media accounts, and not a single person (as far as I know) mentioned that they have done so.

It is almost as if we consider that having a social media account is a natural constant; that the negative sides of this deal are something we just have to bear with. “Yeah, it’s very hot outside, that’s just how it is.”

Based on personal observations, I find that this is precisely where the ingenuity of social media is most evident. It’s not about whether we can break free, it’s about whether we want to. “You’re going to leave, huh. And where exactly do you plan on going?”. It’s warm inside, but the cold outside cares much less about our exact needs.

A city of code built with the help of an army of algorithms that know exactly what and when we want to see, through which flows the endless river of content this Land of Toys boasts. Besides, all of our friends live in this land, and they contribute to its structure and decorations as well.

“Come one, come all! You name it, we have it! Information to keep you distracted from real world issues, only a swipe away…? Done! News describing just how cold the real world is… All the good things you’d like to see with your living eyes but cannot afford… Excitement! Gossip! Celebrities! Food! Pets! Boys, girls, whatever you like… we have it all!

“We know what you like better than you do ha-ha! And never mind that it all starts to look the same, when context and content collapse… well, my friend, you just take in more, and forget about it!”

Besides optimizing their services to a dystopian “perfection” in terms of providing content, I think that social media rely on our most innate needs and feelings in order to keep us interested: our need to be liked (pun not intended) to be part of a community, to communicate, to self-express, and many others (no one asks for phone numbers anymore, when you meet someone you add them on social media). Many of the comments on our forum demonstrate this particular point. In the: ” Should we delete our social accounts?” forum post, Ml mention that social media has been of great help during the pandemic, and that “…social media has to be seen as an invaluable source of communication and that is why we don’t think that we should entirely exclude it from our lives…”, adding that we should, however, be careful of how we use them.

We allowed ourselves to transfer most of our social affairs to these media, and for the fear of losing the feelings of belonging and comfort, we don’t leave. Some of us don’t. Some have left, and some do not think about leaving.

The creators of social media haven’t brought us here entirely intentionally. But when they realized the possibilities, they certainly perfected their craft.

This is all written in a very cynical tone, but the benefits and positive aspects of these platforms cannot be denied.

So, why would anyone want to break this deal? What’s so wrong about it?

We’ve mentioned content and context collapse, and social networks certainly perpetuate these negative phenomena to a great extent. In the previously quoted post (” Should we delete our social accounts?” ) Mmmpast write “Just take a few moments and think about the way you usually get information related to the newest release of your favourite band. Or a new film. Well, exactly.”

This statement makes a strong point, but this is not all digital sunshine and rainbows. Firstly, having most of the truly various information we take in presented in a single context leads to these collapses. Additionally, we have much less control of what sources we receive information from, i.e. we constantly see various headlines, excerpts and images, based on what the algorithm deems will hold our attention and elicit our clicks; whether the sources are good or trusted has nothing to do with it. This kind of information diet also makes us complacent in the sense that we might become completely satisfied with receiving information only through this medium, and stop putting in any thought into choosing information whatsoever. We’ve shed some light on the importance of choosing sources throughout the semester, and Tesla’s post on“Trust Issues on the Internet” provides insight into this process.

Social media are cunningly crafted and refined with one main aim in mind: capital. The surface business model social networks employ demands that content be shaped in certain ways, and this directly affects the users of these networks. Our feeds are riddled with click-bait articles, and various other “non-content”, which is problematic in many ways.
In their 2018 paper, Munger, K. et al state that “Crafting attention-grabbing headlines is essential: with a near-infinite amount of news content available in every users’ feed, media companies need to make readers choose their stories. With the proliferation of online media outlets enabled by the reduced cost of producing news content, one strategy has been to create headlines that appeal directly to readers’ identities via the mechanism of emotional arousal.”In this way, the quality of information we receive, as mentioned, is greatly compromised, as it only matters whether we click on an article or an add, while its content value is irrelevant.

Detrimental effects of these practices, in terms of content design and quality, are more widespread than appears at first sight.
Usingas Elpais.com. as her 2016 research sample , D. Palau-Sampio explores how this influences structure: “Most texts analysed (53%) are characterised by little cohesive structure, in which the narrative or expository development is replaced by lists or juxtaposed fragments; an organisation designed for a superficial scan, rather than an in-depth reading. To this fragmentary option should be added the distribution throughout the text of numerous multi-media elements (videos, captured images from social networks or photographs), causing constant disruption to the reader’s attention.”

In this paper, she describes a “metamorphosis”; a transition to a purely revenue-oriented approach to providing information, concluding that : “These results highlight the perverse effect on the quality of a medium when the main objective is audience acquirement, and which arises by establishing a business model that relies heavily on advertising revenue…”
Her findings imply that undermining content quality, abusing readers’ attention spans and emotional reactions is one of the most efficient ways to acquire revenue, and I struggle to think of an example where this is more obvious than with social networks.

Mephistophilis : “But, Faustus, thou must bequeath it solemnly,
_And write a deed of gift with thine own blood, _ For that security craves great Lucifer”

Then, there is the issue of privacy. Or rather, there is no privacy. When we sign the deal, appeasing that conveniently placed accept button, we agree to hand over the ownership of a ludicrous amount of personal data. Regarding the actual contracts, we’ve discussed some of their aspects in this post “Social Networks and Privacy” .

Reviewing Zuboff’s 2019 book, Carr quotes Zuboff saying that “[the professors] call these ‘contracts of adhesion’ because they impose take-it-or-leave-it conditions on users that stick to them whether they like it or not.”. He further adds that: “Fundamentally undemocratic, the ubiquitous agreements helped Google and other firms commandeer personal data as if by fiat.”.

Surrendering control of our private data and original content via such a contract should, and occasionally does, raise scrutiny and important questions.

Albeit talking primarily about Google, Zuboff’s book also helps with interpreting the relationship social network users have with these companies, and it helps answer the question of why preserving/surrendering privacy is important. Continuing the mentioned book review, Carr states that: “What we lose under this regime is something more fundamental than privacy. It’s the right to make our own decisions about privacy — to draw our own lines between those aspects of our lives we are comfortable sharing and those we are not.”. This is an incredibly important point as it highlights that these issues have much broader negative implications, awareness of which can aid us in acting on these problems before it is too late, and shape our perceptions in a beneficial way.

In line with this, using social media under current terms, i.e. accepting those terms, signals that we are absolutely fine with having no say in what we share, or rather, what is extracted from us. And these are only some of the risks to which we are exposed.

The relationship we have with social networks is truly complex, and my impression is that the ingenuity of social networks lays primarily in how simple they seem, and how craftily every single underlying mechanism is hidden. They provide exactly what we want; they are the masters of convenience. And yet, sinisterly so.

These networks have successfully evolved to a point where it is difficult for us to imagine our lives without them. We rely on the content, and we rely on easy and convenient communication.

We feel, fear and know some of the negative effects, and, not unlike Faust, we can opt out of the deal at any given time. However, that seems so incredibly difficult, and entails a seemingly significant and painful sacrifice. The dangers are becoming more and more evident, even in the mainstream currents, and important questions are being asked. Still, whether we continue to use them depends on which values we prefer more.

As of now, most of us choose the blue pill.

Sources:
1. Forum post by Plusone – https://interculturalextraneity.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=59
2. Forum post by Djaks – http://interculturalextraneity.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=25
3. THE TRAGICAL HISTORY of DOCTOR FAUSTUS (the “A” (short) text )by Christopher Marlowe; Written c. 1589-1592 – http://elizabethandrama.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Doctor-Faustus-A-Text-Annotated.pdf
4. Forum post by Nebz – http://interculturalextraneity.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=26
5. Site post by Tesla – http://interculturalextraneity.com/articles/trust-issues-on-the-internet
6. Munger, K. et al. (2018). The effect of clickbait. Online PDF. – https://kmunger.github.io/pdfs/clickbait.pdf
7. Palau-Sampio, Dolors. (2016). Reference press metamorphosis in the digital context: Clickbait and tabloid strategies in Elpais.com. Communication & Society. 29. 63-79. 10.15581/003.29.2.63-79. – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301304664_Reference_press_metamorphosis_in_the_digital_context_Clickbait_and_tabloid_strategies_in_Elpaiscom
8. Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: Public Affairs. Reviewed by Carr, N. (2019). Thieves of experience: how Google and Fabcebook corrupted capitalism. LARB. Online text. – https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/thieves-of-experience-how-google-and-facebook-corrupted-capitalism/

Additional note: I hereby confirm that this work is solely the result of my own independent scholarly work and that if any ideas, text passages, or diagrams from books, papers, the Web or other sources have been copied, paraphrased, or in any other way used, all references – including those found in electronic media – have been clearly acknowledged and fully cited.

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