Friday, March 22, 2013

Is Social Media Really Free?

TITLE: Is Social Media Really Free?
SCRIPTURE: John 8:34-36
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 22 March 2013

"Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:34-36)

MAIN POINT: Freedom is not something we take. It is something freely given and freely received.

Social media is the in-thing nowadays. Just the other day, I heard on radio about a study by Intel Corporation about what happens in an Internet minute. More than 204 million emails are sent. There are 2 million searches on Google. Users download more than 1.2 million Youtube videos while Facebook has more than 6 million hits. These and many other Internet activities all add up to more than 639,800 GB of data transmitted every minute! That is about a whopping 625 TeraBytes every minute.

"What happens in an Internet Minute?" (Credit: Intel)

A) Free of Charge? Not Really

Marketers are especially fascinated by such statistics. It they are able to predict the patterns correctly, and strategically plan their products and services to catch the next wave, they will certainly profit from it tremendously. Companies with powerful business sense will not only survive, they will flourish with consumers lapping up their products like thirsty travelers. Apple is one such company. Their range of products symbolized by the iconic letter "i" has given new life to old ideas. There is the iPod that rejuvenated the music market, taking over from the old champion, the Sony Walkman. There is the iMac that adds zest to computing, or the iPhone that launches a whole new smartphone business. While many will refer to this "i" as referring to the Internet era, many people have observed that there is more that meets the eye (or "i" as a pun). Something is happening. Technology companies like Apple and Sony have understood the basic psyche of the human being. People are unwilling to pay for something upfront, but will readily opt for anything that does not require much from them. The thinking is like this: If it costs me nothing, why not? If I can get something without me giving up anything, it's a no-brainer.

The problem is this: What's free out there is not necessarily free.

Search media giants like Google have managed to make use of freebies in order to obtain for themselves privacy information free of charge. By offering "free" usage of their GMail, "free" blogging platforms and online Office-compatible apps, their "free" use of tools such as Drawing, storage Drive, Maps, and many online tools, their "convenient" search mechanisms and products have become an automated information mining giant. Instead of going out to seek information, users are unwittingly sending information to them free of charge! With such a huge cache of information, that is why governments sometimes subpoena search companies like Google and Yahoo to pass them information on private citizens. Just think of how brilliant the information collection strategy is. Let me give an example. You use Google Maps to locate a nearby restaurant or a gas station. Google then prompts you to turn on "Location services" on your mobile device to automatically determine your location to make it convenient for you. When you hit yes, you send free information to Google, who then makes use of this information to publicize "popular opinion" to restaurants and businesses wanting to know more about the search patterns of customers. Google can then sell this information to businesses, enticing them to advertise on Google or to prioritize their businesses whenever ordinary Internet users are searching for products or services related to their trade.  I think the "free" model used by these companies is actually a guise for information collection. The old adage is true. Nothing is for free. The conveniences we receive, we pay for them with our voluntary disclosure of information.

POINT: Nothing is free, even in an Internet era. Users pay for it someway or somehow.

B) Harvesting Personal Information on Social Media

Social media titans like Facebook and Twitter are also into the business of collecting private information under the umbrella of "free" use of the popular social media platforms. This explains how many different companies manage to target their products and services directly at us, directly into our email boxes or social media accounts. When I last checked, there is NO WAY users can prevent such information from reaching them. That is why many activist groups are up in arms over the invasion of privacy by Facebook. They know that social media companies ride on the web of connections. They utilize the proverbial effectiveness of word-of-mouth marketing, by using the social media equivalent. Promote the products to a friend, a friend's friend, and the friends of the friends of the friends, and so on. If you are familiar with the multi-level marketing scheme, you will notice a stark similarity on social media. It is a superb strategy for social media companies. Just get a member to sign up for your service free of charge. Then have them share passionately about what they like or believe. Soon, they will share that with friends, and when things go viral, social media companies take notice on the latest trend and sell the information to clients. Thus, they sell our personal information, where all money goes into their coffers, not ours. The costs to us are hidden. So are the profits that arise out of our private information.

Recently, there are lots of ads intruding into my Facebook wall. They are a constant source of irritation. The trouble is, there is no way to turn them off. If you report Company A, soon, Company B will take its place. Anyone who uses Facebook will have to live with this. Sometimes, I feel that there are increasingly three groups of people in the social media age. First are the employers looking to collect information. Second, are the employees who design, implement, analyze, and run the engines that collect information. Third, are the rest of us ordinary users, who unwittingly give up free information to these companies. The first group makes all the money. The second group gets paid when they help their employers make all the money. The third group, the rest of us, works for the first two groups, free of charge! So for Facebook with more than six million hits every minute, it is like having 6 million employees.

C) The Human Condition: A Self-Seeking Inclination

There is no turning back history right now. We remember the days where information shared within the four walls remains within the four walls. Those were the days where information shared stays where they are. Not anymore. In an Internet age, what goes out there, stays there. That is why personal photos, articles, and all kinds of individual digital paraphernalia have to be carefully guarded for anyone desiring to have their information as private and confidential. Unfortunately, people are willing to part with their information in order to get fame and publicity. See how Justin Bieber and Susan Boyle have grown wildly popular because of Youtube? Young people are fascinated with how fast one can be famous. A number have even gone on to be very rich people. Ask Psy who has popularized Gangnam Style.

There is a sinister creature that lurks behind a culture of self-promotion. This I call it a self-seeking inclination.  People want to be popular and famous. They want fast money and quick fame. They desire something for nothing. People who spend a lot of time on social media are likened to someone who likes to doll themselves up for the viewing or reading pleasure of the masses. Scandals have even erupted. Like the case of a University student who produces sex videos and have shot to fame or many will say, infamy. By revealing their naked selves, they think that they have a shot at fame, whatever the cost. The truth is, they are promoting themselves at the cost of their own dignity. They cheapen themselves. They reveal themselves openly. They lack proper judgment. As a result, they prostituted themselves digitally.

D) "Incurvatus in se" - Curved in on oneself

The Latin phrase, "incurvatus in se" literally means "curved in onto oneself." Like Augustine of Hippo, the great Reformer, Martin Luther has called this condition as sin. The Greek word for sin, harmatia, is literally to "miss the mark."  For Luther, any condition that grows away from God is essentially a sinful one. Such an "incurvatus in se" behaviour is so prominent on social media. As I look at the different postings, I cannot help but notice how people posts intimate details about themselves. They talk about their holiday travels or peeves. They complain about certain service standards at restaurants. They comment about political scenes. Some, like myself, like to take photos of food and favourite dishes. The point is not so much about the postings per se, by the choice on what people choose to post. Truth is, it is more about themselves.

Feel the adrenaline rush when you see this on your wall?

  • Why are you posting an article? It's certainly because it is something you have felt strongly about.
  • Why do you post a personal thought? It's because you like to be recognized.
  • Why does one get addicted to likes and a red mark attention on your notification dashboards?
  • Who are you actually trying to promote? 

The truth is this. Social media like Facebook has more to do with self-promotion and self-fascination more than anything else. It is a modern equivalent of a life of "incurvatus in se." Read the following testimony from a recently published book, True Purity.
"I’m a social media junkie. I control myself most of the time now, but in the past I would be on some kind of social media 85 percent of the day. I was reading a hundred blogs a day and commenting on over half of them. I was posting to Twitter and/or Facebook all day long, getting followers and playing the game of social media. But then I started to feel sickened by it. I started to see how it was just about me and myself—getting eyes on me, being heard, making comments, and being smart. Once I decided to turn my life over to God 100 percent of the time, my social media use dropped drastically. And now I strive to make all of the time I spend online time spent serving God. Because of that the stress in my life from trying to be heard and to be known has dropped 100 percent." (Michael DiMarco, in True Purity, Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2013, p97)

Wow. Social media draws attention to ourselves rather than God. For anyone who uses social media, and who claims to love God, this is something worth noting. Maybe, the author's case is an extreme one. Maybe, most of us are not like that. Maybe, social media is not exactly that evil or selfish. While I am prepared to offer my readers the benefit of the doubt, let me also ask: What if that is true?

Here is a check. Can you refrain from social media at least once a week? Can you resist from commenting, reading, or posting something about yourself at least a day a week, to focus on sharing the gospel and to carry the burdens of someone else? Can you learn to talk less about self and more about God and others? If you use social media a lot, why not take a step and ask why? Is there a need to share? Is there a need to be hooked onto social media for so many hours per day?

Maybe, it is unfair to classify all forms of social media as selfish display of self interests. Maybe, it is too general a statement to label. Maybe, the better approach is not to liberally dump social media as selfish media, but like all things, to use spiritual wisdom and judgment to decide. At least, let us all be aware that social media under the hands of a self-seeking individual will only feed the insatiable desire for self-glorification. Be careful. Be vigilant. Be watchful of sin that creeps.

In summary, social media is a powerful tool for self-promotion. Marketers know it. Technologists know it. Social media companies know it. Do we know it? Maybe, it is time for us to know that it is only the gospel that sets us free, not the free sharing of information on the Internet or social media. One of the things that the gospel sets us free from is none other than ourselves. In that case, limiting our social media usage is a wise first step to re-orientating our hearts toward Christ. Unlike the Internet companies out there, when Christ gives us freedom, it is totally free. It comes at no cost to us, because Christ has bourned all the cost.  As we approach Holy Week, this is one thought that we can cherish over and over again. If we are free people, live free. Do not be enslaved by self-promotion or self-glorification.


THOUGHT: "The ultimate test of our spirituality is the measure of our amazement at the grace of God." (Martyn Lloyd Jones)


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