As Netflix’s recent and much talked-about movie, “The Social Dilemma”, outlines: everything we do online is exploited for financial gain. How? Websites, platforms, search engines, social media platforms and apps track user activity and gather all information entered. This data feeds algorithms, powerful algorithms, that use your (and everyone else’s data) to predict and influence your behaviors. Why? To keep you online to show you more ads. Does this sound like a dystopic fiction? It’s real. I’m sure there’s a part of you that feels it. What you may not realize is the unparalleled power and ability of these algorithms. They’re really good at what they do- so good that the people who create them don’t even know how they work. They also get caught in their loops and, knowing what they know, they choose limit or prohibit their children’s access. It’s not a fair fight- but there is a way to win. There’s even a way to win without completely renouncing the benefits of online life.
The past decade has brewed up a perfect storm. Social media platforms have grown meteorically. At the same time, computing power has risen exponentially along with people’s access to increasingly powerful (and fun) portable devices. For many social platforms, apps and websites, their main (and sometimes only) business model is online advertising. Increasing the targeting, and appeal of ads (the perfect wording, the right colors, provocative pictures) helps them earn - but – even more useful to their bottom line is changing users’ behaviors: finding ways to keep them on the platforms. They test when to ping you with notifications... the best way to manipulate your emotions to keep you online and going down a rabbit hole- by getting you angry or inspired. The more time you spend online, the more ads they can sell, and the more data they harvest to further target ads, and improve their behavior change algorithms. It’s one big (unhappy) circle.
This data-harvesting behavior-change model is everywhere, not only social media. Online shopping, search engines, video-viewing platforms, and even news sites use it. It may be easy to write off that they collect your information. I mean the site is free, right? Wait, but what about manipulating you to stay online?… hmmm. Beyond that, the algorithms decide what you see on their sites to keep you online. They choose our experiences. I see a certain front page or set of search results that is very different than the ones you see. It is harder to stomach when you realize that you don’t actually decide what you see (what friends’ content, what search results, what news) and realize that the decisions behind what you see are made based on what will keep you online. Feels kind of dirty.
Of course, the easiest solution would be to renounce or limit online life. Yeah, while easy, it’s also a potentially painful approach. Imagine no longer being able to access the content, connections and tools that you enjoy. I suggest a different approach: to allow users to control their data, their experience, and the content they see.
Blockchain technology can allow us to set up these types of models. For example, the Brave browser doesn’t collect your data for profit, it removes data-grabbing ads and trackers from sites and allows you to control the ads you would like to see. It compensates your viewing of these with ‘Basic Attention Tokens’, a cryptocurrency that you can direct to compensate creators and sites you visit. Another example, the GiveSafely.io charity donation platform, uses blockchain technology (behind the scenes) to connect donors directly with trusted charities. When donating, donors choose what data to share and are rewarded for that data with GivingPoints, redeemable for reward experiences with the trusted charities. On GiveSafely.io, blockchain replaces the central database model where donor data could be hacked, aggregated, misused, sold, or mined to modify user behavior. As a result, donors share only the data they choose to share and experience only what they choose to experience.
As people increasingly look to protect their identities, take ownership of their data and how they experience the online world, there must be the tools and platforms at their disposal to do so. As responsible actors we must rise to the challenge to build those tools. Blockchain can offer some helpful and hopeful solutions.