Law in the Internet Society

I Am Online, Therefore I Am.

-- By SharanjitSandhu - 22 Dec 2017

Introduction: Convenience Plus Something Else

I understand that convenience is a dominating factor for why certain social platforms and other types of applications are attractive to me and other users. At one point in time, these platforms were foreign to us - not yet integrated into our lives as they are now. In the process of integrating these “conveniences” into our lives, we slowly became dependent on them. Now, instead of complementing our lives as just a tool or a service, these platforms are a part of us - learning from our likes and dislikes and becoming better able to anticipate our needs. We do not question whether the process of learning from our behavior is a problem because the convenience of these platforms allows that aspect to go unnoticed.

I am aware of the convenience factor and that it is a dominant factor. But, that is not the only reason why people are so connected and stay that way.

I Am Online

Social platforms are appealing because you feel a sense of control over how you are perceived. On LinkedIn? , you can tailor your “professional” self and on Instagram you can curate the best version of yourself for a private or public audience. In a world where we are constantly defining ourselves by our titles, where we work, where we live, what we eat, and who we do things with, defining who we "are" on these platforms provides a false sense of power and control.

In the process of feeling all of this control - choosing what words we want to say and what images to post – it is easy to forget that our behavior is being catalogued and studied. That is why it is such an afterthought.

Times Are Changing

There has been a lot of buzz about the negative effects of Facebook and other social platforms in the past two years. Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya’s comments about how the platform is “ripping apart society” bring to the surface the darker side of these platforms. His characterization of the “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” hit at the core of why this sense of control isn’t actually control at all. Facebook itself has even commented about the results of various studies that report their news feed makes people “unhappy.”

Even with the negative effects of social platforms on our psyche coming to light, there are still faithful users. Why? It is not just convenience. I refuse to believe that people just surrender and decided to embrace the “machine” because life is just way better this way. It’s something else – it is that Facebook and social platforms are responding to people’s fears of not being able to control their experiences. They are providing users with a false sense of control.

What Platform Companies Are Doing "Right"

Thus, Facebook and other social platforms allow users to feel like they are in control of how their experience is tailored. For example, Facebook announced in late 2017 that the platform will add a “Snooze” button and allow users to “mute” people or topics for 30 days. Although this ability doesn’t touch upon the idea of data collecting on its users, it does divert one’s attention to the small amounts of control you can have when being on the platform.

Even Facebook’s latest announcement with respect to facial recognition in untagged pictures has a “users-can-control-their-experience” spin to it. The company explained “[y]ou’re in control of your image on Facebook and can make choices...." This new feature comes off as being a privacy tool that helps you better curate your image and decide what pictures you do or don’t want online. The key thing about this tool is that it can also be “turned off” - again, feeding the notion that it is a choice.

With such optics, Facebook and other platforms give users a false sense of control that divert attention away from the fact that their data is being catalogued to better understand their behavior. People do not feel helpless and dependent on a platform they’ve written off as being just too convenient to leave. It’s the exact opposite - they feel like this is a choice and they are choosing to opt in and tailor this experience for themselves.

The Time for Change is Ripe

Former Facebook program manager, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, wrote in an article last year that “[t]he hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable." While the election of Trump and “fake news” accusations did lead to public outcry, the recent Cambridge Analytica debacle has created an environment where people are not only outraged, but also seriously distrustful of the platform.

This distrust has led many to log off the site in the form of a “digital detox” or delete their accounts entirely. What is more hopeful is that these people are realizing that there are other forms of communication that offer the same services as Facebook, but respect user privacy.

The Solution

Many may be quick to point out that the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the privacy issues underlying using a platform like Facebook will only stay relevant until a new viral article pops up on everyone’s news feed. However, I disagree. Facebook has tried to address their users’ privacy concerns by allowing users to “bulk remove third-party apps” and stated that they plan to significantly limit third-party app developers access to user data. But, these solutions and Mark Zuckerberg’s unpersuasive statements have not eased people’s concerns.

A realistic solution to protecting and respecting people’s privacy is a suite of privacy appliances. People are ready for a safe solution to their computing and communication needs. The real questions are: Will this computing solution be presented on a large scale in time? And, will the freedom this solution presents entice people enough, so they decide to commit to a new way of computing and redefine “convenience” for themselves?


Webs Webs

r2 - 06 Apr 2018 - 19:02:00 - SharanjitSandhu
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