The Social Dilemma came out about a month ago and got a lot of people thinking about the influence the internet and social media have on their daily lives. I’m a programmer, and I’ve worked for an internet advertising company, so none of this was new information to me. But for a lot of the American public, watching The Social Dilemma was an eye-opening experience into the ways that internet companies try to track and manipulate people. Many of my friends used words like “unsettling” and “eerie” to describe how they felt after seeing the film, but most of them also weren’t really sure what to do about it. They weren’t sure how to make positive changes in their own lives.
So in this blog post, I want to explore some simple changes that I’ve made, and that you might think about making too. I’ve been doing some of these things for years and I’ve started some much more recently, but with these issues at the front of my mind recently, and I think I have a reasonable approach to at least heading in the right direction. The Social Dilemma website provides its own Take Action page, and most of the advice there isn’t bad as a starting point. Most of my own suggestions are minimally invasive and relatively simple. I haven’t completely stopped using social media, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that as a solution, unless you want to of course. I think it’s important to be pragmatic about what you can do in a way that still allows you to maximise the personal value you get from online services.
When people ask me about the movie, I always say that I think it’s a really well-done visualization of the competition for your time. Companies want your attention because your attention is valuable. This isn’t new. In the 80s and 90s, you saw ads on televisions, billboards, newspapers, and magazines. Companies want you to notice them so they can sell you a product. And for the most part, people have been pretty happy to make that trade. Who among us doesn’t get excited for a 20% off coupon at your favorite store?
In addition to straight-up ads, your time is valuable to companies in other ways. Have you ever used a free app that didn’t have ads? Instagram didn’t have ads before late 2013, for example. So why did Instagram care about your time if they weren’t showing you ads? Your time is valuable to companies even if they’re not directly advertising to you. Instagram is valuable as a company, in part, because of the size of its user base. Apps with a big user base are valuable because they can monetize that user base in a variety of different ways – from showing ads to selling data or getting you hooked on a service they’ll charge for.
So apps want your time and they’re willing to compete for it. But they’re not the only thing that’s competing for your time. Think about all your interactions with media in a typical day. Maybe you listen to a podcast in the morning or on the way to work. Does the podcast have ads? What about the app you use to play it? Early in the workday, you notice a few notifications from your favorite social apps. A couple likes, maybe a comment. Also, a notification from one of your restaurant apps that they’re running a promotion today. Later, your phone rings. It’s a spam call. You also notice a couple spam text messages that you delete. In the afternoon, you check your email. Out of all the unread emails in your inbox, you delete about half without reading them. When you get home, you turn on your Fire TV where you see ads for a bunch of TV shows or movies. Then you open the Netflix app where they’re promoting today’s top new shows. Everyone is competing for your attention all the time.
Ads aren’t new, but the intensity of the competition for your attention and time is higher than it’s ever been before. It’s in companies’ interest to have as much of your attention as they can, but it’s in your interest to give them the minimal amount of attention necessary to get the value you want from them. Companies are ruthless and aggressive in their pursuit of your attention, and they’ll win the battle if you don’t put in any effort. Fortunately, there are some low effort solutions that can produce very beneficial results, and my approach is focused on this.
Companies love email. Sending emails for marketing purposes is a billion-dollar industry. For anyone who wants to promote something to you, email is a way for them to get your attention. Your email address itself is valuable to many companies because it allows them to (possibly) show you ads when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to show something to you. (This is why companies will do things like giveaways in exchange for your email address.) They will hire marketing professionals whose job is to write a clickbait subject line to get you to open the email so they can show you their ad. And they will track when you open the email so they know if it’s working. (Images are used to track views, which is one reason Gmail blocks images from unknown senders by default.) Unfortunately, spam is a hard problem to solve, and there isn’t a perfect solution. But there are some steps you can consider that might help reduce the way email intrudes into your life.
Like email, social media is another place companies fight for your attention. You want to log on to Facebook to see your friends pictures, companies want to show you their ads instead. Some of this is obvious – like an advertisement in your news feed. Sometimes, it’s less obvious – like an athlete you follow posting a photo with a big logo in it or a band you like posting about a show in a far-away city. Whatever the case, it’s likely that you’re not getting the most value from whatever social media platform you’re trying to use.
Apps are the new email. Shortly after email was born, companies began figuring out how to use it to advertise. Now, companies are figuring out how to advertise on phone apps. Most of the time, “ads” on phone apps come in the form of notifications. Have you ever installed a new app and been surprised about all the notifications you start getting? “Welcome to so-and-so, let us show you around.” “5 tips to get started quickly.” “Add this to your account.” “We noticed you didn’t log in yesterday.” “Act now for a 10% discount.” You don’t need any of this. Notifications on your phone make a noise to interrupt you. They cut off the real-world conversation you might be having, or they break your train of thought. As such, you should only get notifications for things you’d actually want to interrupt you. Namely, things that require immediate action. A phone call. Perhaps a text message. Maybe meeting reminders from your calendar. Of all the apps on your phone that can send you notifications, I bet about 90% of them can wait ‘til later. I think it’s one of the biggest failures of UX design on both Android and iOS that notifications are enabled and noisy by default. Instead, they should probably be opt-in per app (off by default), and silent by default (or even have a better mechanism for a “notification inbox” that can be dealt with at your leisure). Regardless, there are some things you can do that make a really big difference here.
If you can’t disable a notification (for whatever reason), would it make sense to silence it? Silencing a notification means no vibration or noise, but you can check it at your convenience in the notification bar. You should be able to do this for any app from the system settings.
As long as people have been using the internet, there have been ads on it. These days, ads have become much more sophisticated. Large companies – including Facebook and Google – gather data about nearly every website you visit. Even if it’s the website of your local news station or a blog you like to read, it’s likely that at least one big company knows about that visit, and they use this information primarily to figure out what your interests are. This is why, at times, some websites seem to have an uncanny ability to advertise whatever you were just searching for or shopping for. It’s probably impossible to get rid of 100% of ads on the internet, but there are some simple things you can do to protect your data and reduce the number of ads you see.
If you’re worried about protecting your data online, you’re probably also worried about geting hacked. One of the most common ways someone might hack you is from a major data breach. Let’s say you have an account on LinkedIn. And let’s suppose LinkedIn gets hacked. Maybe you’re not worried about this - what’s a thief going to do, steal your resume??? Well, one of the problems with large data breaches is that people can use that data to figure out the password you used on LinkedIn. And then they can try to use that password with your email on hundreds of other sites. Amazon, your bank, your email, Facebook, the list goes on. So how do you protect your data online?
If there’s one important thing to remember from this whole article, it’s that nothing is free, even on the internet. If you can’t figure out who’s paying for something, it’s you. You’re exchanging your time (or the ability of companies to show you ads) for the use of a service. Many people have come to expect free services on the internet (like email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.). But I think people are finally beginning to realize that they don’t want to trade their time and attention to companies in the way that they have in the past. So I think it’s likely that we’ll see a shift in the coming years, where more online services do away with ads and data tracking and will charge a nominal fee for their use, and many people will be happy to pay this fee to have their privacy protected and be free from ads. If you’re paying a company for their service, the company can focus on building things in a way that benefits you, the user, rather than looking for ways to benefit their advertisers.
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