How Facebook serves junk information like McDonald’s serves junk food

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Many among you, who saw the birth of email, will remember the joy of getting their first email id and distributing it among friends. It was instant mail and everybody loved it. Since we had just matured from the old-fashioned mail, people liked to compose well thought out messages. To those who were born later – yes, there was real punctuation and fully spelled words, CYBT? (short for Can You Believe That?). Then came spam – and screwed the experience forever. There were chain emails of repeated jokes, but worse were the Viagra emails and Nigerian billionaire uncles. Today the thought of logging in my email gives me a headache. Though all of it is not malicious spam – but coupons, GOD, so many coupons, WHY!?!

More recently, SMS was killed too. Five years ago there were hardly any spam messages, except maybe if you were friends with somebody who was into compulsive forwarding of every joke. Telecom companies lined up plans of free 1K, 5k, 10K messages – challenging your finger tips to spam the inbox of your friends. It was still tolerable – you still could get a laugh or two – depending on your taste in humor.

What really killed SMS in India are the bulk messaging used by marketing companies. Today I wake up with 20 messages from LM-PROPERTY, TM-SAUNABELT, BM-INSURANCE flashing on the inbox of my high-end Samsung phone. Touch screen phones give you an excellent interface (really pretty) to read messages – but can you really use it? Will they let you?? Buried between all these could be an important message from my boss, which means I can’t even bulk delete. You see my problem now??

Menace of phone message spam in India has virtually destroyed the good old SMS

At this rate I can predict that phone calls too would be breathing it’s last breath soon. The process has already begun – it has probably been 2 years that I have received a one meaningful call from a land-line phone-number. I don’t even answer them anymore. Most of these calls begin with a nasally rehearsed speech “Sir aapko bataaney ke liya call kiya hai ki …” – followed by a home loan, credit card, suraksha kawach, sauna belt, insurance … A lot of my less intelligent yet polite friends haven’t caught on with the pattern yet. They take the bait of the “offer” or the “discount”. I’d like tell them all, you’re not getting those 5 minutes of your life back, EVER again!

Commerce has invaded private communication over the years to sell their products and services – but unchecked marketing, bordering harassment,  eventually kills the user experience. In about a decade the abused media dies too. Social media has given opportunity to personalize the communication and slowly it is becoming portable too. Everybody is now on social media. Commerce has big strategies panned out on how to reach the ‘potential’ customer – how to capture user preference and harvest it to sell more and more products. Social marketing is way more sneaky compared to last decade’s spammers. They turn your friends into marketers. They want you to go crazy hittin’ the like button!

The way commerce invades communication media always follow the same pattern.

Step 1: New technology brings new media
Step 2: Technology becomes cheaper, and everybody wants to use it.
Step 3: Since everybody is using it, commercial houses do everything to grab eyeballs.
Step 4: Slowly marketers abuse the system so much that the media dies a painful death

Advertisement is not necessarily bad. I mean who’ll pump the money into the machinery right? Ads fuel these technologies. But this post is not about the economy running behind technologies. It is about your inter-personal relationships. It is about communicating efficiently. It is about building stronger relationships. If they could, they’ll even advertise the space on the pillow of your bedroom. Imagine ad banners popping directly in your head as you talk most personal things with your spouse. Not only would these banners pop automatically, they’ll be perfectly synchronized to your reference and preference! This is the future of communication. Because communication with technology will always be sponsored – and technology will keep growing more and more personal, that means more and more invasive.

Can you shun technology while communicating? Yes you could, but you wouldn’t. Because technology of tomorrow is addictive. It is designed like that. The people working behind it are behavioral scientists, who try to zero-in and cater to the most basic psychological needs of social approval and validation in the most subliminal ways possible.

Communication of tomorrow is optional, which means it is subscription driven. It is moving away from spam. Then it should be good right? Not really. The communication technology of tomorrow is manipulative and even more invasive. More subscribers means more connections. More connections means sharing. More sharing means more eyeballs. More eyeballs means more revenue. This is the user-engagement model of Facebook.

Facebook is actually a lot like McDonald’s.

McDonald’s food is never filling. You can always eat some more. Though, it is junk, but it makes you feel good. The happy feeling makes you want to go back and eat more. This is the cycle of addiction. Junk food kills nutrition – and screws up your health.

Facebook makes you want to share the same junk information again and again. More likes and shares make you feel better. It gives you social validation and approval. You feel good about yourself. Though it kills your real relationships. The meaning of the word ‘friend’ blurs. Facebook eats up your time and mental energy – yet makes you feel great. This is the beginning of addiction.

Facebook appears fun from outside – just like a McD’s burger topped with fries and coke – but slowly it erodes your social range to the keypad and the like button. And all this so you could become a consumer of junk information with a side-order of ads.

1. You do not really need 500 friends to live a happy, normal life. Not even 100. But social media wants you to believe that having friends in 3 figures or more makes you more desirable.

2. Everytime you recieve a like on your post, you feel a rush – this is the rush of social approval. Approval from people who are not really your friends. It tingles the same chemicals which make you addicted to fast-food.

3. It blurs the line between real relationships and superficial online mumbo-jumbo created online. By occupying your mental space it distances you from real-life communication.

4. Everybody is trying to make the best impression online – hence, facebook readies an army of narcissists – who live for the likes and follows recieved. You can call it the psychological currency. It makes you feel rich and better.

During last few decades several means of communication died because of invasive marketing. Facebook and its likes will survive because it turns you into a marketer, and you don’t even realize because it makes you feel great. In the process, it turns you into a obnoxious narcissist. Social media has no be place for privacy or real communication. The superficial the better – because that has commercial value.

It is your choice how much you let it overtake your real life. Just like how McDonald’s ‘food’ can’t replace real food – Facebook can’t replace face-to-face communication. Overtime Facebook makes you lose more friends than maintain friendships over distance.

Commercial agenda needs to be understood behind modern social media before corporations can claim our personal space for ad-revenue.

... Written by Arun Gopal

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Indian Exponent: How Facebook serves junk information like McDonald’s serves junk food
How Facebook serves junk information like McDonald’s serves junk food
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