Ok Houston, we are flying blind

Feb 21, 2024
social media
tech companies
Monitoring the Internet used to be one of the guarantors of public space. With all APIs closed, we are now literally blind to what is going on around us.
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Every time you open one of your gadgets during the day, you dive deep into the public arena. Theoretically, you should be entitled to a broad view of what is going on, just like a reflection of the ágora, the public square where all Athenian citizens deliberated on public matters. However, a combination of factors has led to a situation where the outcome is exactly the opposite. Your voice is always suppressed unless you engage in ways to make yourself heard following the conditions established by someone else.
Starting from the beginning: individually, the weight you carry is equivalent to the number of people listening to you. Apart from the number of followers you have (where, as of 2021, up to 15% are probably bot accounts, according to a study conducted by the University of Southern California), the reverberation of the shockwaves you send is felt by the reach of the cause you are defending. If you want to advocate for the reforestation of the Amazon, it’s likely that you will be listened to only by bot accounts. If you are famous in your field, like an important researcher from a prestigious university, add a few dozen academics, and that’s that. But if you engage, for example, in a debate about the US election, or the AI porn drama Taylor Swift is going through, your reach will be astronomical, and it’s almost certain that you became a hater without even noticing.
The control over the levers of the debate lies almost exclusively with the tech giants, let’s say, Meta, Twitter, and Google. These and a handful of others will shape the traffic according to their interests. In 2020, Google, Facebook (now Meta), and Amazon accounted for approximately 80% of all digital advertising spending in the United States, showcasing their immense power to do so. Monitoring the movements in the trends is a fabulous weapon for ad sellers to boost the impact of their clients. But if you are not an advertiser or any stakeholder in the industry (let’s say, a marketing agency), you are out of the game. If you have a few hundred dollars a month, you will be able to pay your way into the control room, but for most people, the trends are just the ones they can see in their timelines. It’s a zero transparency business if you don’t have money. Brands like Social Flow, Trendsmap, or Buzzsumo, which now offers plans starting from $99 per month as of 2023, used to have free plans for individuals to have shallow glimpses of what was going on, but almost all tools like that were shut down, acquired, or rebranded into marketing tools.
This is not a conspiracy. The moves in the market simply follow the incentives that are on the table. For example: a decade ago, you could build a followership that ensured you an audience you could understand and engage with, but since the platforms started to channel traffic via algorithms designed to increase the efficiency of their ads, if you don’t have a massive followership, you won’t build one without paying (especially if you are a business). Facebook literally sells traffic. It stopped being a community a very long time ago.
Monitoring trends may sound like a nerdy thing, but when there is practically infinite information around, it’s the only way for you to determine where you are and where you want to go. All the APIs where you could measure that are now paid. Some of them, not even in paid plans. Twitter used to be a fresh dive into the “Internet”, but now it is as closed as North Korea. Meta and Google are not much better and with the AI-isation of the system, you are a sitting duck waiting for advertisers to eat you.
The monopoly of the channels where the information flows is another chapter in the takeover of major stakeholders in our liberty. After the Covid-crisis recovery, the dim expectations of the economy made investment money wither and from startups to tech giants, the “free” ceased to exist because investors want money at any cost. The trend of profit-squeeze is visible from the massive tech layoffs of the last 18 months to the end of free plans for virtually anything, with more than 100,000 tech workers losing their jobs in 2022, as reported by Crunchbase News. Capitalism should thrive when competition is free and welcome, but we are in the post-capitalist world, where there is no space for risks. The capital works for the capital, and it’s highly likely that you already know that in the hard way.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024