How Social Media Turned Us All Into Advertisers

Douglas Rushkoff on 2019-09-11

The platforms that taught us how to sell our friends to marketers

Image: Busà Photography/Getty Images

Social media began with the best of intentions. In the wake of the dot-com bust, after investors had declared the internet “over,” a new generation of developers began building publishing tools that defied the web’s top-down, TV-like presentation and instead let the people make the content. Or be the content. At the time, it felt revolutionary. With social media, the net could eschew commercial content and return to its amateur roots, serving more as a way for people to find one another, forge new alliances, and share unconventional ideas.

The new blogging platforms that emerged let users create the equivalent of web pages, news feeds, and discussion threads, instantly. A free account on a social media platform became an instant home base for anyone. The simple templates allowed people to create profiles, link to their favorite music and movies, form lists of friends, and establish a new, if limited, outlet for self-expression in a global medium.

The emphasis of these platforms changed, however, as the companies behind them sought to earn money. Users had grown accustomed to accessing internet services for free in return for looking at some advertisements. In the social media space, however, ads could be tightly targeted. The copious information that users were posting about themselves became the basis for detailed consumer profiles that, in turn, determined what ads reached which users.

The experience of community engendered by social media was quickly overtaken by a new bias toward isolation. Advertisers communicated individually to users through news feeds that were automatically and later algorithmically personalized. Even this wasn’t understood to be so bad, at first. After all, if advertisers are subsidizing the community platform, don’t they deserve a bit of our attention? Or even a bit of our personal information? Especially if they’re going to work hard to make sure their ads are of interest to us?

What people couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for with money, we would now pay for with personal data. But something larger had also changed. The platforms themselves were no longer in the business of delivering people to one another; they were in the business of delivering people to marketers. Humans were no longer the customers of social media. We were the product. In a final co-option of the social media movement, platforms moved to turn users into advertisers. Instead of bombarding people with messages from companies, social media platforms pushed an online upgrade on word of mouth they called “social recommendations.” Some marketers worked to get people to share links to ads and content they liked. Others sought out particularly influential users and made them brand advocates who got paid in free product.

From then on, the members of various affinity groups and even political affiliations competed against one another for likes, followers, and influencer status. These metrics came to matter not just as an interesting measure of one’s social influence but as a way of qualifying for sponsorships, roles in music videos, speaking invitations, and jobs.

The social agenda driving what felt like a new medium’s natural evolution was once again subsumed by competitive individualism.

This is section 20 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here and the following section here.

From ‘Team Human’ by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.