About 50% of internet users browse the internet using Google Chrome. About 2 billion people use Facebook every month. The sheer scale of these numbers are so ridiculously high that they feel small.
But it all makes sense. Facebook and Google (or should I say Alphabet?) are the two main powers that dominate the social media industry. Almost every thing we use on the internet is connected to either of these two entities.
What does that really mean though? Well, it means that we are willingly sharing a lot of information with these companies. In the long run, it’s safe to say that Facebook and Google probably end up knowing you much better than your parents do.
What do they know?
Well, Facebook knows your name. Sure, that’s easy. It also knows who your friends are. Okay, fine. It knows everything you’ve ever posted on it. It knows what you like. It knows where you live.
It even knows your emotions. They didn’t add “reactions” solely because it provides a better user experience, after all. If they had, why would they have a policy on how not to use them?
Google knows even more than Facebook. Your search habits, your purchasing habits, your browsing habits. Your taste in music, films, books, video games, TV.
Basically, you could be reduced to a single JSON file very easily.
My purpose here is not necessarily to alarm you. Our “datafication” is just part of a broader trend, whereby the whole world is being reduced to data. Increasingly, companies are turning more and more to analytics to make their decisions. In turn, the products they create are becoming more and more data-driven. As a result, it makes sense for them to start treating even their customers as data points.
However, there seems to be a little paradox here. Our continuous datafication should imply that the internet is becoming more and more anonymous, right? If I am reduced to a single data point, then I am no longer significant alone. Therefore there is no need to care about my own individual identity.
Except, that’s not really the case. Facebook, for instance, is becoming very, very, very serious about ensuring authencity on its platform. In fact, Richard Allan, who used to be Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer in 2012, had a dream where immigration officers could “ask to see a photo album [on Instagram] to see if a relationship is genuine.”
Indeed, I can tell from personal experience that trying to use inauthentic accounts on Facebook is nearly impossible. There are countless hurdles you need to go through to assuage Facebook and convince it that you are indeed a real person.
Google’s push for Google+ was a similar act – although Google is more lenient still.
Anonymity vs Authenticity
The internet is a hellhole mainly because of anonymity. People can hide behind their computer screens and be really awful with impunity. As such, the push for authenticity seems to make sense. Maybe our social media overlords are trying to create safe and secure spaces for everyone to use harmoniously. After all, if everyone knows it’s you who is saying all those mean things, maybe you’ll behave, right?
We all know that authenticty doesn’t help with anything in that regard. If anything, it makes people more defensive and aggressive – it makes them hold on to their guns even more.
Here’s my theory on why there is a massive push for authenticity on the internet. The end goal is the complete datafication of humankind, right? (Call it the Human Datafication Project.) At this point in time, neither Facebook nor Google can force this upon us. They can’t forcefully take your information away from you, that’s probably illegal. (And besides, the NSA is doing that already anyway.)
Instead, they need to create some sort of a sense of trust between themselves and you. That’s why there is a huge emphasis on security. You tell them your name and they promise to keep your account safe and secure from all malicious activity.
On the internet, your identity is possibly the most precious thing you own. Once you give that away, it becomes much easier for you to disclose other information. Google knows your name – might as well give them your birthdate. And hey, it helps you recover your account and can even act as an extra step of security, right?
Furthermore, seeing your own name on the top right corner of your browser makes you feel like you truly own it. It feels homey. This is your browser. It knows you, it responds to your tastes and likes.
In all honesty, “datafication” is comfortable. It makes the whole browsing experience much more enjoyable. I like it when Spotify suggests new songs to me. I like it when YouTube offers me new videos to watch. I like it when Google shows me results that are the most relevant to me. Heck, I use Facebook to reach to potential readers.
Master of Your Fate
How comfortable you feel right now depends on where you stand in the anonymity vs authenticity debate. And that depends on your political views, probably. Let’s say it’s okay for companies to instrumentalize you thusly. What will happen if the government decides to do that?
Take for instance China which is developing a Social Credit System. According to this, each individual Chinese citizen will be reduced to a single score based on “complex algorithm” which is run by many “data giants” one of which is Alibaba. So here, we have a social media company that’s working with a large government aiming for complete datafication.
That’s probably an extreme example, but it’s still real. The point is, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can still remain authentic on the internet and control the rate of your own datafication.
A couple of months ago, I decided to see how many accounts I had created using my main email address. I found more than 90 accounts from a wild variety of different websites. Most of them I didn’t even remember signing up for.
The next step was to go to each of these accounts and anonymize and disable them. This took me a long time, but by the end I was much more comfortable of being on the internet, because I now know how much of myself I have divulged on the internet.
Even before that, when I first realized how much information YouTube collected about me, I got so paranoid that I disabled my search history. The result was the blandest YouTube experience I had ever seen. All the videos that appeared on my feed were boring, irrelevant. But when I reverted things back to the way they were, YouTube became so much better.
Control Your Datafication
Authenticity isn’t bad, but neither is anonymity. Think about it this way. When you meet a new person, how much do you tell them about yourself? How long do you wait before you tell a friend about your interests or secrets? Why should you treat the internet otherwise?
Datafication isn’t necessarily an enemy; but it could be. That’s why I’d urge you to be more careful on the internet. Remember, it can’t know you, unless you share things with it. So, choose what you share.