Ethical Marketing & Social Media Addiction

Last summer, I saw a copy of Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and after I checked it out, I read it in like a day (it’s a short read). And while I haven’t completely abandoned social media- I still have an Instagram account (but I have almost no followers and I never post, like or comment; I just use it to stalk people) and a Snapchat- I certainly learned some new things and agree with Jaron’s perspective.

By now it’s not a mind-blowing concept that social media and tech companies use feedback loops that mess around with the hormones in our brains in order to keep us addicted to their platform. The purpose of such addiction is to capture our attention and it is our attention that is sold to advertisers who pay these tech companies money for our attention. This isn’t anything new. We know that this is how social media works and until I read Jaron’s book, I thought that the biggest (and the only) negative consequence to this was that social media wastes our time and makes us unproductive. The obvious solution to this is just more self-control/willpower/motivation or some fancy blocking tool like Freedom. However, in Jaron’s book, procrastinating and wasting time online is only the tip of the iceberg.

I don’t believe that the tech companies or the advertisers are evil masterminds sitting in their headquarters with a whiteboard and a string map moving to Phase the Second! I know people do shady shit and these tech companies are doing shady shit but I’m not generally conspiratorial. The thing is, as a fledgling entrepreneur, I’m an advertiser (or soon will be) and I don’t want to contribute to any of the problems via the business model of these tech companies.

In Jaron’s book, the problem with the companies’ business model is that advertisers pay the companies to manipulate the users of the platform. Manipulate feels like a strong word, especially when referring to a small business that sells something like soap or electric toothbrushes. But we have to remember that 1) terrorist groups and other politically motivated groups (Jaron points out the Russians during the 2016 elections) can and have used ads too and it’s been proven ads can affect voter turnout, and 2) these ads are targeted. Now, I don’t have any plans to take over the world, blow things up, or influence elections (aside from my own vote of course). The big issue with ads, no matter what kind, that are targeted to specific users is that targeted ads are designed to prey upon negative emotions, pack mentality, and to give you a little dopamine hit when the specific user clicks on them (after of course, the social media platform has made you a little bit depressed in the first place).

I don’t want to be beholden to the business model but the fact of the matter is, at least at this point in time, it is going to be impossible for me to run an online business without using social media ads. This is very difficult for me because people often say “be the change you wish to see in the world” and I wish the world of social media was less manipulative.

My parents are fans of Dave Ramsey, a financial teacher who advises to never, or almost never, have debt and who has advised people that they don’t need a credit score. The reasoning here is that having a credit score requires getting into debit (aka purchasing things on credit) in order to prove that you’re fiscally responsible (aka get a high enough score) and once you have a high enough score, you can get into more debt by applying for more or better credit cards, a mortgage, etc. According to this teaching, the ideal way of life is to pay for everything with cash but that is not how reality works in our society. People need student loans. People need to get an apartment or a mortgage. Some people want to have an emergency line of credit open. People have medical bills and utility bills.

Whether or not you agree that it is ideal to have a society without credit, the point is that what’s idea and what’s practical aren’t always the same thing. Ideally, my business wouldn’t need to use social media ads. Practically, my business needs to use social media ads. You could say that I’m not helping things any by using social media ads and I suppose that’s true. You could also say I’m not helping things by having a credit card and I’m just perpetuating a bad financial system in our society. However, I would argue that it does not fall on the shoulders of business to change how online advertising works and that it does not fall to individuals to change how our financial system works. With credit, the fact is people need it. (Some) people need to go to college. People need a place to live. Therefore people need to go into debt and they need credit. With business, I need to make money to support myself. Therefore I need to use social media ads.

If either system is to change, I think it is up to the party who needs the system less to make that change. I don’t know who’s in charge of this whole credit score thing. People have been buying things on credit from the general store since the days of Little House on the Prairie and I’m pretty sure FICO wasn’t a thing back then. Maybe the system should be based on an individual’s total income and debt to income ratio instead of a credit score but me refusing to get a credit card isn’t going to make that happen. Other credit users will continue to use the current system because not every one has the luxury of not needing loans or a line of credit.

For social media ads, if I refuse to use them, my business will suffer and other businesses will just keep on using them because (right now) they are necessary. Even if all advertisers on social media collectively stopped advertising on all platforms, everyone’s business would still see a major decrease in revenue because not only does social media/online ads reach more people than traditional ads, it also allows businesses to target their ads to their niche market which makes social media ads more effective. You could argue that businesses should just stop being greedy, collectively quit social media and take the hit to their profits but a decrease in profits means a decrease in employment. There are marketing professionals who’s job is to handle the social media advertising and brand image for a company and these tech companies who rely exclusively on ads for their profit –Facebook, Twitter, Google, Snapchat- employ thousands of people.

Businesses need social media, users do not. If the business model of these tech companies who rely solely on ads for their revenue  is to change, the change needs to come from the users. I know there are influencers and people like photographers who use social media to generate most if not all of their income but that is not the case for the majority of social media users. Most social media users are simply users and they do not need social media in the way that businesses need social media. For change to happen, it is the onus of those who need the system less to make that change. And in this case, it’s up to the users. I think it could be up to the companies to make the change but they’d need an incentive to do so and that incentive starts with users deleting their social media accounts.


I’ve never had a Facebook or Twitter and I don’t really use my Instagram- I check it maybe once or twice a month but I don’t do anything on it other than look. I find Snapchat hard to give up since it’s the only method I use to keep in touch with friends from college. I have their phone numbers and we could text or Facetime. In the past four months I’ve been out of school, I’ve had one 30 minute phone call with one friend. Otherwise, all my contact with my college friends has been through Snapchat.

Calling, and even texting, have become bizarre. I feel like calls and texts require some serious order of business to be discussed. Like texts are for making plans (things disappear in Snap) or group chats (but Snap has group chats and voice and video calls too) and calls are for scheduling interviews or if someone is dying. I think Snapchat is kind of like the “poke” on Facebook, but less ambiguous. With Snapchat, you don’t have to say anything when you send a snap, you just have to send a picture. It could be of anything- your face, a cute dog outside, your shoes, your dick, (please don’t send that one) the view outside the window, the room you’re currently in, the sky, a bug, etc. The difference between snaps and pokes is that snaps are an experience. Snaps let you either see the person you’re snapping or see something “with” them via their camera lens. It’s less about communicating than it is about “connecting.” I put that in quotes because I think connection without some type of communication is kinda impossible. When you break it down, Snapchat isn’t about connection and personally, I think it’s not that great for communication either (my friends and I are always forgetting what we just sent to each other). Snapchat is really just about giving us that little dopamine high that we get whenever we see a new notification and open a new snap or keep our streaks going.

I keep my Instagram even though I don’t use it solely because it’s weird not to have one (and I like stalking people, mostly my Tinder dates). I don’t post on Instagram, not even on the story. I don’t comment and I can’t remember the last time I liked something. I follow less than 50 people and less than 50 people are following me. I know it makes zero sense to keep it around. Having an Instagram was more important to me when I was in school and meeting new people all the time, even though I didn’t use it back then either. It is very weird to not have an Instagram. When I was in school, it was a lot less weird to simply give someone my Instagram handle and just say “I don’t post or really use it that much” than to not have one. I think people implicitly understood having an Instagram but not using it; it’s distracting and we all want to be more productive. Not having an Instagram would’ve been much weirder.

I had a classmate in elementary and middle school who did not have a single TV in her house. My family never had cable TV so I thought I was the odd one out but my family, like most, had at least one TV. Most households have multiple. Truthfully, everyone thought that girl’s family was as weird as they come for not having a TV even though 1) she was normal otherwise and 2) it’s not really up to a 9-year-old whether or not the family has a TV. I had a TV in my house and for the longest time it was an old boxy Sharp (not a flat-screen). And even though I didn’t have cable and my family’s TV was super old, I was less weird than my friend without a TV.

I think that a lot of older people like Jaron Lanier and Cal Newport who support living without social media don’t understand just how weird and alienating it can be to live without social media as a young person. Jaron is 58 and Cal is 36. I’m 19. Both of these people are technically old enough to be my father. I mean, Cal Newport is “young” but he was graduating high school while I was in diapers. Not having an Instagram or a Snapchat as a 19 year old today is like how not having a TV in the house was for my friend, or like how not having a radio would be for my grandparent’s generation. People understand having it but doing the bare minimum with it, like having a TV but not having cable or having an Instagram but not posting. But not having it at all is just beyond bizarre. I once offered a guy on Tinder my phone number only to have him request that I Snapchat him instead. He said that he wanted to make sure I was real (as if a phone call or FaceTime couldn’t verify that).

I suppose I should stop caring so much if people think I’m bizarre. Something about me though, is that I hate explaining myself so I try to avoid doing that because I’m an adult and I don’t own anyone an explanation. When people learn you don’t have social media, they ask why. I know I don’t owe anyone an explanation but it’s hard to tell someone that in the moment without coming across as either sketchy as hell (“I don’t want to talk about it”) or bitchy ( “That’s none of your business and I don’t have to explain my life choices to you”) and potentially alienating a new friend. But I also wonder if I’d still be in contact with my college friends without Snapchat. Not having social media isn’t just “weird.” It can also be isolating.

The thing is though, I’m not just a business owner who needs to use social media ads. I’m a regular user too. And I guess that in order to “balance” my need to use social media ads for my business, I should delete my accounts as a regular user.

 


I decided to deactivate my Instagram. Deleting just feels so final so I think deactivating is good for now. It’s there if I want it and I can go back to it without loosing followers or having to request to follow other people all over again (if I could even find their accounts again). If not, it’ll stay hidden. I want to get rid of Snapchat too (mostly on principle) despite having made it far less distracting for myself. I find it harder to give up. I use it everyday unlike Instagram. I have Snap streaks with my college friends that are over 100 days long. I’m not sure if we’d still keep in touch if I got rid of it.

2 Comments

  1. Great article! I’m certainly concerned about the role that social media and marketing plays in the world today (I’m 30, so lived through it’s emergence at cruicial points of its inception and gestation, right through to where it became a predominant force, the movement from it’s being a point of interest to it’s being a meta-social reality relay was palpable). To the generation after me, it is as much a part of the reality of life as much as anything ‘real’. This is something which people often seem to overlook, I find.
    I agree when you say that marketing online is necessary to survive in this day and age, but I also agree that it is insidious, particularly in how it constructs identities (RE: Deleuze and Guattari) and manipulates them. It’s clear to see that the move to Post Fordian systems was partly the inception of this, creating the market for the individual, and from there, further individuation of the self was germane to marketing. The side effect of this is undeniably that the feedback loops of the veritably proverbial dopamine hits of targeted ads creates individual echo chambers and crafts us further into isolated constructed egos. We are, for the first time in history, consuming machines. Is it wrong to participate? I don’t think so, now it’s here, there seems to be no going back. It simply is what it is.
    What are your thoughts on the future of this form of marketing?

    1. I do think this marketing is here to stay. Even with people becoming more concerned about digital privacy and digital minimalism, the only way it would go away is if 1) people stop using the internet (not gonna happen), or 2) people start paying for Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. without ads (possible but very very unlikely). It’s just too efficient and profitable for businesses to opt out simply on principle.

      I do see marketing niche-ing down to smaller and more specific target groups in the future since the algorithms of FB and Google make this possible and as people get deeper into their echo chambers. I can see people not even knowing about the same companies as well as becoming more resistant to alternatives.
      I also think that brands will need to stand against something even more than they stand for something. As an example, the most liked Instagram photo of an egg became the most liked photo because people wanted to beat Kylie Jenner. As much as people love Kylie, people love to hate on the Khardashian-Jenners even more. Being the underdog is trendy. I think this will make it even more important for companies to cultivate a loyal following and a “cult of personality” around their brand as niches become more important.
      This is why I find influencer marketing and collabs to be very important but it is arguable worse and more manipulative than regular targeted ads.

      If somehow, targeted social media ads disappeared or the bubble burst, I could see every one relying heavily on influencer marketing and endorsements, and of course good old fashioned SEO and publicity from coverage by national magazine websites (which are influencers themselves in a way).

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