User engagement levels of social media platforms have seen a steady increase over the past decade. Software engineering practices are responsible for drawing users in and retaining their attention for extended periods of time through the use of extensive user profiling algorithms. These practices have created detrimental consequences for consumers. This article explores the ethicality behind such practices by analyzing software engineering applications.
The wide offering of social media platforms available today – Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and LinkedIn, among others – targets every aspect of human interaction, from social and professional to travel and fitness. Because of the scope of applications of social media in daily life, the average social network user will spend roughly five years of their lives on these platforms , or approximately two hours per day. Children and teens between the ages of 8 and 18 are the demographic with the highest average use at up to 9 hours per day . In 2010, the percentage of worldwide social network users was estimated at 14%. By 2017, this percentage had risen to 34% and is expected to rise to 40% by 2021 .
Social media usage has been associated with the development of social capital (i.e., networks together with shared norms that facilitate cooperation among individuals ), enhancement of learning opportunities, and increased forms of self-expression. However, the numerous consequences associated with extended usage of social media include development of depression and anxiety, hindered productivity, and invasion of privacy . The widespread daily consumption of social media, primarily by the youth, is a result of software engineering practices that promote addiction to their content at the users’ expense. This leads to the question: to what extent should social media developers be allowed to exploit consumer immersion levels, and what ethical limits should there be to user engagement? Stricter ethical software development practices can be enforced if engineers prioritize the welfare of users.
FINANCIAL NEED FOR INCREASED USER ENGAGEMENT
As software engineers develop more complex algorithms to analyze user metrics and increase user engagement levels, their approach is driven by the nature of the business model behind most, if not all, open-access social media platforms. In Facebook’s financial release for the first quarter of 2018, the company reported $11,795 million revenue from advertising alone, which constituted 98% of the company’s total revenue for the quarter . Similarly, Twitter’s revenue from advertising for the same quarter was reported to be 89% of their total revenue . The same can be said for other companies whose only product offering is their free social network platform, such as Instagram and Tumblr. Overall, advertising revenue for social media companies has seen a substantial increase in recent years due to higher volumes of user engagement.
Because of this, social media companies have turned their focus to the construction of highly detailed user profiles based on personal information, interactions with other users, and engagement with content. The result is a descriptive list of each user’s information, including behavioral trends, personal interests, social class, and political views. This information is then utilized by social media companies to provide tailored content suggestions and third-party advertisements that are more likely to capture the user’s attention. In turn, their advertising platform generates more meaningful impact, increasing the value of their marketing offering for businesses, thus allowing them to raise prices for advertising spots. While this hyper-targeted approach has been portrayed by companies as a mutual benefit for consumers and advertisers, wherein consumers are exposed to a better selection of products and services that are more aligned with their interests, it comes at the expense of consumers’ well-being.
IMPACTS OF SOCIAL MEDIA ON CONSUMERS
While social networking platforms profit from high user engagement levels, the prolonged use of social media has been associated with detrimental effects on users’ mental health. Several studies have determined that online connectivity is inversely correlated to the amount of quality social interactions a person has. A lack of quality social interactions can directly contribute to the development of depression and loneliness . Software developers’ techniques to retain users’ attention through easily accessible content such as Facebook’s Instant Articles, Instagram Stories, or YouTube’s ‘Up Next’ auto-play feature only contribute to the unfolding of such mental disorders. And while the main premise behind social networks is to bring people together, social interactions in such sites lack the depth of real-life social experiences.
Due to the shallowness of such online exchanges, frequent users of social networks often report a decrease in self-esteem. Reportedly, 1 in 5 teenagers is bullied online, and by comparing themselves to highly-edited images posted by others, they are more likely to develop body image issues . Even though social media promises positive effects on customers’ lives by “bringing people together,” promoting forms of self-expression, and facilitating collaboration and exchange of ideas, a study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health in the United Kingdom determined that except for YouTube, all major social media platforms have a net negative impact on users . It is worth noting that the study identified Instagram as the social network platform with the most detrimental effects on consumers’ mental health. Moreover, developed addiction to social networks affects millions of people’s everyday productivity. A study by the University of Maryland estimated that American workers spend on average a quarter of their daily work time on social media platforms . Demographic trends show that this estimate is higher for teenagers, who are spending time online instead of focusing in class.
Additional effects on social media users, such as manipulation of individual consumption habits and public opinion, are the result of vicious data management and unethical violations of users’ privacy. Such practices stem directly from extensive user profiling practices by software engineers. Recently, the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal involved the use of data of over 50 million Facebook users in an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm with a focus on data analysis, was able to legally obtain user data under research pretenses as software engineers can do through Facebook, Google, and Apple’s tools for third-party developers. Making use of this user data, they deployed a series of targeted, politically charged digital ads to influence U.S. voters . Although the extent to which this ploy effectively influenced election results is debatable, this incident shed light on the many questionable applications of psychographic targeting that social media software enables.
ETHICAL ANALYSIS OF SOFTWARE ENGINEERING PRACTICES
The negative effects of social media are often attributed to irresponsible consumption by users. However, due to the influence of complex algorithms on user behavior, the blame must be placed on the software developers behind such platforms. From a business standpoint, it makes logical sense for social media platform engineers to increase user engagement through more attractive features and tailored content, but the Engineering Code of Ethics rules that the health, safety and well-being of the public must be of the utmost importance in practice . Following this code, the operations of software engineers should be limited by an ethical framework that acknowledges the effects they have on the consumer. However, data management tools in social media face a dual-use dilemma; they hold the potential to generate both beneficial impacts and harmful consequences on users .
The right course of action for software engineers regarding dubious practices in the development of social media can be determined through a utilitarian ethical analysis, under which a balance of benefits and drawbacks is conducted to determine the morality of an act . In this case, the comparison is made between the improvement of social media content and the consequences of addictive content on users. This improvement in content, however, is profit-driven more than it is consumer-oriented. Because of this, there is little regard towards the extensive negative consequences of this content. Additionally, these detrimental effects extend to users’ personal and professional development, while the benefits from other online platforms are limited to the enhancement of online social interactions. It is not that the development of engagement tools is in itself an ethically irresponsible act by software engineers, but the use of such techniques even in spite of the consequences is. This supports the idea that current practices must be modified to prioritize users’ welfare.
Ethical data management has the potential to enhance the user experience. This year, Apple and Google both released features that encourage responsible use of their mobile devices by tracking time spent in each application and allowing users to set daily limits. Following this shift, Facebook and Instagram released their own features that similarly generate an alert when too much time is spent on the application. This approach does not diminish the amount of attractive content made available to users, but it makes it easier for users to manage their time. There is no information available yet on the outcome of such tools, but it is expected for metrics to show a decrease in online activity. In the words of Instagram’s Well-Being product team lead, Ameet Ranadive, “There may be some trade-off with other metrics for the company; that’s a trade-off that we’re willing to live with because, in the long run, this is important to the community” . Although highly unlikely, more drastic applications of user metrics for the benefit of consumers’ health could include limits in functionality to users who spend unhealthy amount of times on these platforms.
Social media platforms provide a convenient and entertaining service to millions of people. But, while interesting content suggestions keep sites relevant to users, these users should not develop a dependency on the sites to the point where it affects their mental health. The potential of software engineering tools should be focused on generating favorable conditions for users to make the best out of the tools while improving their quality of life. The amount of information that these platforms are able to obtain from each of their users should be put to better use than to exploit it to increase user engagement.
It is up to software engineers to develop ethically responsible social platforms that ensure user well-being and make good use of user data. Tools aimed to increase user engagement levels must be limited by the detrimental effects they pose on consumers instead of serving unethical corporate interests. The financial drive behind all social media companies should not overpower the ethical role that professional engineers must fulfill. In the end, software developers should not strive to gain control over users’ time and free will, but instead build a relationship between service and users based on satisfaction and trust.
By Mauricio Guajardo, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
At the time of writing this paper, Mauricio Guajardo was a third year student at the University of Southern California majoring in Mechanical Engineering with an interest in technology entrepreneurship and financial engineering. As an aspiring engineer, he is particularly invested in promoting ethical engineering practices and mitigating the consequences of unethical applications of technology on the public.
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