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Durham University

Research & business

Is social media a plague we can’t escape?

(14 October 2019)

Dr Mariann Hardey, Associate Professor at Durham University Business School, is a social scientist and digital humanities scholar.
Her research interests have long been concerned with mediated relationships and digital communications while bringing a richer comprehension of opportunities around working in technology into the process of leadership with a focus on supporting gender equality in tech in particular.

I work with a range of corporate clients, NGOs and charities, along with cultural sites, museums and art galleries all of whom recognise strategic benefits of social media for engagement and audience and consumer tracking metrics.

Many consumers are comfortable with the change in formal methods of engagement to serendipitous social media posts and messages.

Consumers are already ‘social’ in these spaces, so the natural extension of corporate reach seems to fit with the innovation of smartphone technology and opportunities for new types of interactions. Yet these new types of interactions are hugely problematic: if a consumer wanted to know, for example, how to raise a complaint there isn’t a linear pathway here. Anyone who has tried to ‘contact’ Amazon will quickly realise after five clicks through different webpages that it is easy for corporations to appear engaged and friendly, when really they are hiding in plain sight.

There used to be a level of transparency in the close relationship required between corporations and consumers, much in the same way people like to put a face to know who they are dealing with.

If you were starting a new company tomorrow, you’d be uniquely different if you did not initiate some form of social media profile. You don’t need to worry about a long-lead time to establishing a visible presence, however, the amount of time and financial investment corporations put into initiating and managing a social media profile varies from none, or a little to a substantial share of the corporation’s value.

Do corporations invest properly in social media? Often, no. And here is how the plague becomes an epidemic. The infected world of Social Network Sites (SNS), Facebook, Twitter, 微信; Wēixin, 微博; Wēibo, LINE, YouTube, Reddit and their siblings is such that if I want to start an account, I just click a few buttons. I now have a new profile, and the provider looks after the user database for me. Wonderful.

All of this ‘user-friendly’ technology is designed with sticky features to keep users online for longer, giving away their data ‘freely’ and putting data power into the hands of the few. Some responsible action is being taken in the UK: the latest policy reform and new legal code means that social media firms are barred from using ‘addictive features’ such as notifications, continuous scrolling, auto-play or reward loops. Part of this rhetoric forms a pre-emptive set of protective reform changes designed to assure the user they are ‘safe’ in social media spaces. What these reforms fail to acknowledge is the role of third parties and the responsibility of corporations in managing their sponsored content to protect user data. Cambridge Analytica is a story of the digital age where the main players fail to resolve complex privacy issues and destroy users’ faith in social platforms.

Exacerbate existing inequalities and perpetuate new ones I’ve been doing some research into home biometric DNA kits asking fundamental questions about data integrity and how individual’s data is protected. Though in the initial stages of the research, the lack of transparency and inaccuracy in how the tests are managed draws a sharp intake of breath. Equally, some of the positive experiences have fundamentally changed lives: one participant found out she had a predisposition for a rare type of diabetes; she booked to see her GP and has been able to reform her lifestyle before the disease became a chronic condition. We are far from the elixir of ‘cyber’ life, though it would be wrong to state social media is entirely a malevolent condition. What is needed are specialists to create open and fair terms of use. For every commercial opportunity to create more content and leverage more information by social media, there exist in equal measure opportunities to disturb the user experience to exacerbate existing inequalities and perpetuate new ones.

Today’s digital social platforms and networked information have been optimised to ensure users remain engaged and tethered to their affective appeal. This is technology designed to hold attention - constant scrolling, autoplay, image integration, push notifications - all with the capacity for addictive interactions and to immerse the user in ways they likely did not intend or expect.

What, then, is the role of government regulation to protect us from such infrastructure? We once may have speculated about ‘technologies of freedom’, however, things have significantly shifted and the celebration for a utopia of self-governance is woefully inadequate to protect user data. Today, the operation of many digital platform-based media have begun to mimic the operation of collective circle of power and questions remain for how big players and their CEOs might be held accountable.

There is not an easy answer to the above, so as users continue to be used, so too we must prepare ourselves for further disturbances as platforms dip deeper for longer into our data.

To find out more about Dr Hardey’s research, please visit durham.ac.uk/business/mariann-hardey

This article was published in IMPACT Magazine on 1 July 2019

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