Home Opinion Opinion: We are donating to the companies that make us products

Opinion: We are donating to the companies that make us products

In my first semester of college, I donated plasma four times. I got $50 the first, $40 the second, $30 the third and $25 the last time I went in. At first, I thought it was an easy way for me to make money. I could just sit for an hour with a tube in my arm while reading a book or scrolling on my phone.

I didn’t know what I was giving up to give plasma. The needle made me anxious with my thin veins and it would drain my energy for the rest of the day. Somehow I’d still convince myself that it was a win for me. The cost of donating plasma meant anxiety, stress, fatigue and two scars on the elbow grooves of my arms. When I found out that the cost of my plasma was actually way more than what I was being paid, I was surprised. How could I be giving away a part of me without knowing what it’s really worth?

Many of us might do this every day.

Have you ever wondered how YouTube, TikTok or other social media sites make money off of providing a “free” service? Well, nothing can really ever be free, if you realize that not everything is paid in money. We pay for those services with our attention and our information.

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

If you have ever seen the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, then you might’ve been aware of this idea already. The documentary displays the insides of social media that we don’t see or think about. Sharing the stories of people who have worked behind these companies, we learn from the film that these social media companies become successful by grabbing our attention and calculating our interests. They then sell that information to whoever can bid the highest.

The film uses the word “harvest” when describing how platforms gather personal data to target their users with ads.

Many of the interviewees in the film were former Facebook or Google employees. After the film’s debut, Facebook released a document to address the claims made in the film.

They claim that we are not the product:

“Facebook is an ads-supported platform, which means that selling ads allows us to offer everyone else the ability to connect for free. This model allows small businesses and entrepreneurs to grow and compete with bigger brands by more easily finding new customers. But even when businesses purchase ads on Facebook, they don’t know who you are. We provide advertisers with reports about the kinds of people who are seeing their ads and how their ads are performing, but we don’t share information that personally identifies you unless you give us permission. We don’t sell your information to anyone. You can always see the ‘interests’ assigned to you in your ad preferences, and if you want, remove them.” -Facebook What ‘The Social Dilemma’ Gets Wrong

Hunting our desires

A video from The Wall Street Journal shares how some social media networks might use our data to keep us engaged. They created dozens of automated accounts that “watched” TikTok videos to figure out how the network analyzes its users.

While I do believe some parts of both the Journal video and The Social Dilemma are dramatized, this concept isn’t something we should ignore. Tracking and using our data is a violation of our privacy. We are giving up our information and the details of our lives while being pulled into addictive viewing habits. These networks hook us in and keep us scrolling for hours for “free” when we are actually giving up something far greater than money.

Not only do they take our information, but we become addicted by being nourished with the content we like. In my eyes, this has created many problems.

Imagine spending summer camp in a large cabin. Before the camp starts, the counselors divide you into groups based on your interests, hobbies and values. They want to keep you happy so they believe surrounding you in a room with people like you will help you have a good time. For the whole summer, you only spend time with this group, doing activities that you expressed liking. The discussions and activities are all based on what you previously said you enjoyed.

This sounds good in theory, but think about what could have happened if they didn’t divide you. Maybe you would have learned something new from someone different than you? Someone with a different upbringing could share their story or maybe you could develop a new hobby or interest that you would have never found unless you were exposed to it. Imagine what you could have gained in that time if you were not surrounded by only what you said you wanted.

How does this idea translate into social networks? Many find their news, information and inspiration through social networks, where the service is showing us what we want to see. If the only news we get is shared by our Facebook friends — who may think just like us — the chances of seeing a new perspective are low. If we are surrounded by opinions from friends and family members who have the same values and thoughts as us, how can we be challenged by new voices?

Connections and being happy with the content in our lives is fine, but when we spend the majority of our time being surrounded by what we want, when will we ever have time to see what we need?

TikTok uses data to understand what users like.
TikTok uses data to understand what users like. Photo credit: Julia Brunette

A problem for a nation

Whatever these companies are doing with our information — selling it to others, using it to feed into our social addictions or calculating our interests — we deserve our cut of the profit or the right to claim what’s ours.

Congress or states should place restrictions on data, especially data that is used for tracking. They should also ban or restrict the selling or trading of personal data. But if you are okay with them selling this data, you might as well ask for your cut.

Too many people are okay with giving this up, and maybe that is because they don’t know what they are giving up. Lots of apps that track your location can actually seem like ordinary apps like weather or games, and they often bury the fact that they will share or trade your location data in the fine print of their user agreements.

Congress has failed us in acting quickly on this issue. Perhaps the politicians themselves don’t want to give up the very data analysis they use for campaigning? While many states have tried to come up with solutions, I believe that this problem is affecting our nation as a whole and should be solved at a federal level.

We nourish ourselves into being the best product on the market, and we do it mindlessly. We continue to sit with tubes in our arms as we donate ourselves, bit by bit, into becoming the product.

Where is the defense for our privacy?

Photo credit: Julia Brunette

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