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Social Media Sites Are Consumers and You Are the Product

a hand holding a video camera with the Facebook logo on it in front of some white flowers

We've all been there. You have an important event tomorrow, maybe a meeting or class, but instead of sleeping, you're scrolling on your phone. You keep telling yourself that you'll turn it off 'after this video' or 'just after a few more Instagram stories'. But it's just so much easier to keep passively scrolling.

But why do we do this to ourselves? The truth is social media has designed itself this way so its users become addicted. It's intentionally marketed for us to become easily reliant on it and indeed we have. This is no small part due to the excess amount of time we have had to spend on it during the height of the pandemic.

Designing itself to extract as much screen-time from us as possible means the more these sites can expose us to ads that tailor themselves to our interests. If you want a glimpse into social media's marketing techniques and how this feeds into our own consumer habits, then read on.

How we become hooked

Jia Tolentino's book 'Trick Mirror' discusses what aspect of the internet excites us in her essay titled 'The I in the Internet': we love to perform. According to her exploration of Goffman's theory of identity, we can only understand our identity through how we act and talk with others. For example, we understand our role as a student through attending school, completing work and interacting with teachers. Take away this performance of our role and we feel empty.

On social media, our performance is enhanced tenfold. We build our online presence through posts so we can grasp an idealised understanding of our personalities. We want others to watch us and see our best selves so we can feel like we are those picture-perfect versions of ourselves. This would explain some internet users' need to post constantly about their day or the latest trendy item they bought. They are performing status.

The comedian, Bo Burnham, communicates this in a more accessible way throughout the Netflix special 'Make Happy'. This is him talking about what his show was about.

"But I worried that making a show about performing would be too meta. It wouldn’t be relatable to people that aren’t performers. But what I found is that I don’t think anyone isn’t. (...) Social media… it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, “Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.” It’s prison, it’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together."

So we're already drawn to social media by nature, but why do we keep scrolling? Tolentino highlights how social media is purposely designed to show us extreme and emotionally-triggering content that encourages us to interact with it. Author of 'Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now', Jaron Lanier, describes in his TED Talk how the 'like' mechanic on apps serves as a symbol of social approval or disapproval. We slowly recognise the likes to mean social validation and so we keep posting to feel that social acceptance.

These are not just conspiracies either. Lanier cites how social media developers themselves explicitly state how these platforms are created to be addictive. Even the Netflix documentary 'The Social Dilemma' is full of whistle-blowers from Silicon Valley itself exposing the design tactics of sites like Facebook and Instagram.

Why social media wants us addicted

In short, it's to bring in advertisers. We consider social media beneficial because it is free to use, but there is a reason for this. Part of the appeal for different advertisers to pay social media to show their ads is because of how they hook users into spending long amounts of time on the platform. This means you have a higher likelihood of seeing that company's product, especially tailored and marketed to your browsing interests, being advertised and sold. 'The Social Dilemma' explains why this is an issue.

"It's even a little trite to say now, but... because we don't pay for the products that we use, advertisers pay for the products that we use. Advertisers are the customers. We're the thing being sold. The classic saying is: "If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product""

So, social media is designed to create the maximum amount of profit by getting us to spend the maximum amount of our time using their platform. The documentary then shows former engineer, Justin Rosenstein discussing how the product being sold to advertisers is our attention by us viewing their ads.

This highlights what Lanier means by there not being one 'evil' person to blame for addictive social media. The companies merely reflect our own consumer behaviours and are in the same traps themselves. It's a weird cycle we have built; our desire for profit and to consume the latest trends has created the social media platforms that make us continue to view ourselves and each other as merely 'like' statistics and numbers. Our conversations shouldn't feel like an excuse for companies to maximise profit from the relationships we build online.

Re-humanising our interactions

By now you might be able to see the benefits of developing a better relationship with your social media apps. But where do we begin? People like Jaron Lanier have written entire books on social media's toxic effects and why deleting all of these apps shows these companies zero tolerance in this transaction-based internet. If reading that idea makes your skin crawl then don't worry! There are other methods to reduce screen time that can just benefit your own wellbeing.

If you are looking for ways to rely on these apps less as a pass time then try a new hobby instead. Swapping unnecessary screen time for picking up something like a book can be more enjoyable than mindless scrolling. Plus, you'll then have a fun new skill. Some apps, like Instagram, have settings to remove like counts on your own and others' posts. That way posting feels less like a popularity contest and you'll feel less pressure to create posts for social validation.

You can also take precautions to make any time spent away from social media beneficial. Apps like Forest can help limit screen time while providing you with cute rewards and incentives to do so. Your phone settings also allow you to mute specific app notifications so you don't feel the need to track which friend has recently posted or how many likes your post got whilst you were in the shower.

In the end, creating a boundary between you and the internet can really be beneficial for your bank balance. Removing yourself from the outside pressure of temporary social validation through buying that trendy dress allows you to save that money for items that will emotionally fulfil you in the long term.

And so my last words to you will be from Bo Burnham: "if you can live your life without an audience... you should do it".


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