Has social media taken over the web?

In a remarkably short amount of time, we’ve stopped questioning the technology’s role

A man check his Facebook on his smart phone. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP
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Social media is about much more than posting an update to Facebook or a photo on Instagram. The architecture of the internet, which we all rely on in one form or another, includes social media algorithms embedded into its very fabric.

Even if you are a light user of Twitter or Facebook, those corporations are able to track your online behaviour through the proliferation of the like and tweet buttons. In less than a decade, this pervasive infrastructure has been created, but it is largely misunderstood or even discussed.

So why talk about it now? Several celebrities, including the British comedian Jennifer Saunders, have questioned obsessive social media usage. Saunders expressed worry that it was creating harmful stereotypes for young women. She also questioned the rise of online celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and the hold they appeared to have over the attitudes of young people.

She has a point. It is understandable that some want a break from the unnecessary and sometimes harmful noise of social media. Such platforms have proliferated in part because they appeal to our harmful desire for instant gratification and vanity. But you can delete your accounts or suspend them to stop actively engaging online. Even if you don’t have an issue with these platforms, having a break is a healthy practice. But this is only half the story.

Even if we don’t actively engage with Facebook, Twitter, Google or Apple, they continue to engage with us. These companies have built their business models on collecting data about how we behave on the internet and then translating that information into targeted advertising. Advances in artificial intelligence will only hone their ability to collect additional information about our lives.

The truly remarkable aspect of this avoidable reality is that we allowed the internet to be created in a manner that privileges the interests of private companies over users. In this process, there was little debate and far less oversight about protecting the rights of users and making the internet less aggressive and noisy. By all means listen to the warnings and take a break from these platforms to collect your thoughts, but keep in mind who has the ultimate control over your content and behaviour on the web.