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The inescapable clutches of social networking

Jordan Ellis discusses the power of social networking: how we do not realise its influences, its worth, and the effects it has on our brains.

Ask yourself this: how many times and in the last hour have you used a social media platform? And which of these platforms was it? Twitter, Facebook, Instagram? Or some other innovative new and exciting platform which sells itself as the be-all-and-end-all of interacting with your buddies online?

These services are popping up every day hoping to become the next billion dollar startup success story.

A quick summary of ludicrous acquisitions of social networks for those of you not in the know: Google buys YouTube in 2006 for $1.6 billion; Facebook buy Instagram for $1 billion; and Snapchat has repeatedly turned down acquisition offers worth over $1 billion (most notably a staggering $3 billion offer from Facebook).

Clearly, there is something seen in these platforms that is of interest to businesses and companies.

Any digital product, service or system that generates money is carefully designed with every element crafted under complete scrutiny.

It’s simple business, you want a system that will be most effective at bringing in the money. So bearing this in mind, what is it about social networks that keeps us coming back for more?

Studies have been carried out have shown that these social platforms play on the primal and psychological way that our brain functions. More specifically, the two functions of pleasure and anxiety.

For example, we check these services for notifications (regardless of whether we have them or not) out of anxiety from not checking them for a period of time, or to find and see things which please us, releasing a small amount of dopamine in the brain.

We perceive this as pleasure and pleasure is addictive by nature. The simple notion of receiving a ‘like’ on Facebook or a ‘retweet’ on Twitter is enough to keep people using these services to the point of addiction.

Looking at the excessive use of social networks out of context makes it sound akin to an obsession or compulsion. Rather than remain a simple way to pass a few minutes waiting at the bus stop, it is fast becoming a necessity in our everyday lives.

How long until we have adverts telling us to “use the internet responsibly” similar to those that tell us to “drink responsibly”.

A further example of the dopamine-releasing addictive qualities of these services is Instagram. Beloved by many for publishing what you had for lunch and the intense workout you have just completed, Instagram is notorious for making you feel good about yourself.

You’ve just taken a good photo on your smartphone? Great! Stick it on Instagram with a filter that does all of the editing and hard work for you, and wait for the ‘likes’ to roll in. Each time that little orange indicator appears, you feel good about yourself and receive a small splash of dopamine in the brain. So why wouldn’t you publish everything you do in your life? Minimal effort for maximum satisfaction.

This form of addiction is what the social network business model is all about; repeated views on behalf of the user equates to more views on adverts, and that translates into lots of money for Mr. Zuckerberg and his peers at the heads of these social behemoths.

In fact this is a similar model to those of freemium games (as publicly called out by a recent episode of a certain adult cartoon. South Park, I’m looking at you).

As students, our lives revolve around being social (as well as all that hard studying we do) and the easiest way to remain social with a large group of people is social media.

Social events are easily organised through these platforms, large group conversations can also be had and photos and intimate details of your life can be shared, right down to the date you started a new eating habit. You also cannot deny their effectiveness as a messaging client.

Course year groups are organised by ‘Groups’ on Facebook to enable you to keep in touch with what is going on with your studies and this is an organisational property of the platform that is hard to replace, seeing as so many people use Facebook.

Another benefit to you and I as normal individuals of society is that we can learn a thing or two from social media. I am of course talking about the YouTube revolution and how you can make a living without even leaving your bedroom.

Local Brighton YouTube star PewDiePie has more than 3.8 billion views on his videos and has made millions of pounds in advertising revenue.

Make-up bloggers and people who document their life also have large followings and see success from a platform that relies on people using the video social network regularly.

However, this isn’t all a glittering dream job. The comments on videos on the social network are often full of spam, self-promotion or just plain abuse.

This is a widespread problem on the internet and not just videos; it manifests itself as co-ordinated bullying on social networks and abusive posts on message boards like 4chan.

Phot Credit: Sean MaCentee via Flickr

Phot Credit: Sean MaCentee via Flickr

Not only is social media for you and your friends, but it is used itself by businesses, bands and organisations to drive sales of products and it even plays a huge role in modern day politics and even terrorism.

It is slowly becoming an online advertisement platform, with your friends interspersed between the newest EDM song and Kim Kardashian’s freemium app.

Politicians and political parties actively make use of social media now to engage with supporters and followers of their causes, usually to much success.

Controversial political videos quickly go ‘viral’ getting millions of views in very short amounts of time, and there is no such thing as bad publicity.

It would be interesting to quantify the effect social media will have on the upcoming UK general elections.

One global example of its effects can be seen in the recent US elections. Facebook added an “I Voted!” and “I’m a Voter” button to Facebook so your friends can see how many of your friends and people in your country have voted.

This all sounds harmless but this button didn’t appear for all US users and this is where the problem lies. If certain members of the population can see this button (say per region and the region is swayed to one political party), then you can end up with a skewed result and an altered election.

Facebook were also conducting a second experiment to see which of the two buttons, “I Voted!” or “I’m a Voter!” received the most clicks. Another factor which could have skewed the elections.

A further issue with social networks is that sites like Twitter are being used more and more by terrorists and they have had to clamp down and remove propaganda created by Islamic State and other malicious bodies being distributed over these platforms.

However, where some doors close others are left open, and open source social networks like Diaspora are now being used for malicious intent instead. This issue was covered last week in the Tech section and more can be found online.

With over 1.3 billion users (more than 1 in 6 people on the entire planet), Facebook is becoming more and more difficult to escape from. Why would you leave when all of your friends and family are just a click away?

Humans are social beings and we like to be surrounded by other people. We thrive off human contact and when that isn’t available, digital contact has to do.

One thing is for sure, these companies hold a large amount of data on each and every user and that is actually a very scary thing. Facebook have a huge database of personal and intimate details of all of its users.

Their age, date of birth and even home addresses if you choose to put that on there. This should be a cause for concern because how do you know that rogue employees at the social network companies aren’t looking at these details, photos and more illegally?

Facebook’s data scientists are even able to identify when you are most like to start and end a relationship using research based on user’s data.

The fact that these companies hold this much data makes them an ideal target for hackers because this data is worth an awful lot to advertising companies.

Advertising companies are also willing to pay for the details of people so they can target their adverts, and they don’t care who they buy it from, anonymous hackers or legitimate sources.

By targeting adverts using the user data they have, people are more likely to click them which translates into more revenue for advertisers.

Bearing all these privacy concerns in mind, the public interest is turning to social networks which aren’t run by advertisers and which aren’t interested in experimenting on its users or their data.

Sites like Ello have no advertisements and promise to be completely transparent with users.

Interest in this type of social network is so great, that Ello has raised over $5.5 million in funding from investors without any current revenue stream. It is currently invite only and they have also signed a legally binding contract to never maximise profits.

This amount of funding with no promise of maximised profits is insane, and it shows that people obviously are finally beginning to appreciate their privacy online.

Whatever your opinion on social networks, the benefits of their use cannot be understated, just think about how much harder your life as a student would be to organise without social networks.

The more time you spend on these social platforms, the harder it will become to leave them. We are turning into the products that are sold by social networks to advertisers and their clutches on us are only getting tighter.

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