Social media’s presence in society continues to grow, despite concerns from some about the collection and use of personal data. While the Pew Internet Project’s 2016 survey of social media use shows that the major platforms either leveled off or posted modest gains, Facebook continues to lead the pack, with 79% of U.S. citizens online using the site.
Individuals and businesses are generating more data than ever. Social media alone accounts for a staggering half billion posts per day, and Facebook stores more than 300 petabytes of data from its multitude of active users around the world. Each petabyte equals 1 million gigabytes – enough data to fill 223,000 DVDs.
But all that data isn’t useful unless it can be mined, organized and understood. Improvements to statistical and computational methods mean the information contained in social media data can be put to use. As better tools are developed for using data in disciplines ranging from law and sociology to economics and medicine, more people are gravitating toward the new field of data science.
Beyond collecting and storing data, Google employed it by analyzing regional search terms to predict flu outbreaks far ahead of hospital admission data. Meanwhile, through artificial intelligence, Facebook is actually learning from the data it’s collecting.
Facebook’s AI Experiment
In 2013, Facebook launched its artificial intelligence or AI plan, with the goal of providing the most personalized newsfeed possible for each user. What can Facebook’s prototype AI do?
- Identify content in videos
- Learn the context of words
- Differentiate between hundreds of sports activities in videos
- Learn the meaning of a passage of text – and then answer questions about it
For example, the AI can read the sentence, “Kendall went to the store and bought tomatoes,” and answer the question, “What did Kendall buy?” Facebook is also working on translation features that will automatically show a post in a user’s native language, no matter what the language of the original post.
Why is Facebook going to such lengths? To better understand its audience, so it can feature more closely targeted content. If AI learns a user is crazy about football, Facebook will know to present a related ad, and to show more football clips and fewer hockey clips in the user’s newsfeed. But could this personalization lead to even more dependence on social media?
Dependence on Facebook and Social Media: Is it a Mental Health Issue?
The 2014 Pew social media study also looked at how the use of social media relates to the public’s level of community, tolerance, political engagement, trust and social support.
The study found that Facebook users are more trusting, have more close relationships and are more politically engaged than others. It also showed that Internet users get more support from their social ties and that social media users are half as likely to be socially isolated than the average American.
On the other hand, some studies show potentially negative impacts from social media, and psychologists and other experts voice concerns that overuse can damage well-being, particularly among young people.
A survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in 2011 found that 70% of teenagers age 12 to 17 used social media on a typical day and those who engage with social media daily were more likely to use marijuana, tobacco and alcohol.
The study concluded that exposure to glamorized images of drugs and alcohol may desensitize young people and lead to copycat behavior.
Young people aren’t the only group studied. A University of Michigan study in 2013 found that adult participants who used Facebook were negatively impacted by it, and the more they engaged on the site, the more their life satisfaction declined.
Why did they continue to engage on Facebook?
It may be because disclosing personal information triggers a biological reward in the brain. Just as certain drugs make us feel better, so does sharing personal stories, according to a study by the Harvard University Department of Psychology in 2012.
As part of the study, people were offered small financial rewards to answer questions, and most chose to answer questions about themselves, even though it meant less money than answering questions that didn’t involve themselves.
It makes our brains feel good to share, so Facebook and other social media sites are the ideal way to achieve that feeling, the study said. Such actions are harmless for most people, but those predisposed to addictive behavior can develop dependence on social media.
As more data is collected and analyzed, social media sites like Facebook will further personalize each user’s experience. Ads and posts will mirror actual experiences, making it more likely that certain people will become dependent on the rush that comes from engaging on social media.