Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hijacking Your Voice

When I log into Facebook and look at my news feed, I see a lot of pictures with funny captions, some 'likes', a few embedded YouTube videos, and random cries for help. I'm not sure if it's a perceived relative lack of action in our lives that we feel that we have to make up for it by providing our friends with substitute action stories (Note to self: make up false action stories featuring myself). But, the 'why' doesn't really matter. The point is that we increasingly rely on using digital media artifacts to represent ourselves. This is a step beyond wearing name-brand clothing to augment social status in the real world; it is to poke a hole through ourselves, and encourage our friends to look through that hole at something, or someone, other than ourselves and exclaim, "That represents me!"  

Recently, I read a study that tried to explain why Facebook is SO depressing. The basic conclusion was that most users post happy pictures and funny cartoons/memes, giving the false impression that they are having the time of their lives— every day. When other users see this, they feel like their lives are boring, uninteresting, and relatively shitty, leading to inevitable depression and possible doom. In other words, Facebook is the digital embodiment of smiling-through-your-teeth-even-though-you-are-miserable corporate culture. I believe that this is definitely a factor contributing to the overall miserable experience that is Facebook, but it is only a small part of the problem. These types of studies are typically conducted by social media 'experts', who probably do not consider the underlying social ramifications that are inevitable as a result of large-scale social media supplantation of in-person communication. In my opinion, these studies serve to improve the social media experience, but are too cowardly to dare deny social media's benevolent potential in the first place. Personally, I think social media is worthless with regards to social fulfillment, but tackling that argument is beyond the scope of this post.

Thus far, I've only discussed voluntary participation in social media, but the real danger is in the ways that our voices are hijacked. Facebook has introduced a new feature for advertisers called 'Sponsored Stories'. The 'Sponsored Story' tool allows me to inject posts into your friends' timelines, in which you unwittingly parrot my status updates. What this means is that I can launch an advertising campaign, targeting all of your friends, excluding you (So you don't know about it- hehe).

Basically, anything that you 'like', can be leveraged to exploit you as an unwitting endorser to all of your friends. As it is right now, Sponsored Stories, are marked as 'Sponsored', and they are quite obvious, but that's only because they are a new concept for advertisers. They haven't yet found seamless ways of making their advertisements appear to be coming from your voice, but from my observations, they seem to be learning very quickly and we are making it much easier for them.

As we increasingly use silly images, embedded YouTube videos, and other reality-substituting content to represent ourselves online, using our 'likes' to hijack our voices will ultimately be an effortless, silent victory for advertisers. Let me illustrate this with an example. Say you like 'cats', and you post cat pictures on your wall every day. I'm an advertiser, and I hijack your voice, and post sponsored stories of cat pictures for all of your friends to see, using your voice. However, the difference is that my photos serve my selfish motives. But, your friends won't know the difference, because you post cat pictures every day, and they don't realize that I've totally hijacked your voice. 

In conclusion, we may be able to temporarily mitigate the social damage of the sponsored story attack if we revert back to sharing our actual lives instead of relying on reality-substituting content.  Think about this, if you post hilarious photos and videos every day, and then one day you have actual news in your life, no one will give shit because the photos and videos were more entertaining than you. Your real news will be the fresh apple slices on the Wendy's drive thru menu, relatively flavorless, hopelessly alone, and perceivedly shitty. How will that make you feel?