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We Are Merchandise

27.08.2012

Social media has great advantages: sharing photos, connecting over long distances, building fan bases, announcing events, creating networks, discussing and debating – you name it. Being part of an online community is important to many of us. In fact, belonging to any kind of social network is vital for our health and well-being. Social media taps into this, which is why it’s so successful. And why it could potentially become so destructive.

At their core, social media sites function as platforms for the provision and exchange of information. It’s a new process for a skill we’ve been perfecting for hundreds of thousands of years, and one that’s critical for our survival. When spoken language was born 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, we were able, for the first time ever, to communicate complex ideas. This dramatically improved our capacity to learn, which fuelled the next stage of human evolution. The ability to pass on information using sounds and symbols meant not only that we knew what to do when hunting, or that we could identify which plants were good to eat and which would kill us, but it also enabled us to tell stories. These stories warned us of danger. They informed us of the past. They taught us to navigate using the stars. They tapped into our imaginations and moulded cultures and religions. From there, we invented technologies and agriculture, and, ultimately, created civilisation.

Without our aptitude for information exchange, we would not have become the modern humans we are today.

Our needs in life are no different today than they were 200,000 years ago. At the most basic levels, we still require shelter, food, warmth and security before anything else. This is where social media steps in. It can slot itself into just about any of Maslow’s rungs. At first glance it might only appear to relate to psychological and self-fulfillment needs. Its anchor, though, lies firmly in that deep, instinctual desire for social stability.

 

Image c/o encognitive.com

 

In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, made a startling prediction:

…every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

According to Schmidt, we’re hurtling towards a societal catastrophe of Orwellian proportions. Is he overreacting? Or could his prediction contain an element of truth?

Companies market their products to us according to our interests, age, gender and other demographic categories, and they’re able to do this because social media sites provide vast quantities of this demographic data. We’re pretty savvy at filtering out irrelevant information, but controlling access to our personal data is another matter entirely. Once it’s uploaded to a social media site, chances are we no longer own it. And if these companies own our information, how soon will it be before they can also claim our identities?

After all, we’re not the consumers of social media. We’re the merchandise.

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