Social Media and Innovation under Capitalism
By Panagiotis Englezos
We often hear that capitalism incentivizes innovation, that through competition the best, most efficient product will rise in popularity thus serving the customers and rewarding its producers for their forward-thinking. Yet, we need to take a closer look at how these processes work to understand how they shape the technology we use and depend on in our everyday lives.
During the early 1920s, Charles F. Kettering, lead researcher and vice-president of the General Motors Company, wanted to figure out a way to reduce engine knocking and make his products more appealing to customers. Since knocking occurs in an engine when the fuel combusts earlier than it’s supposed to, Kettering was set on making gasoline less explosive, and he did it. He quickly discovered that mixing ethanol with gas produces the desired results but there was a problem. Ethanol is a byproduct of the metabolic process of yeast. People have been creating it for thousands of years, along with the production of alcoholic drinks, which is why it could not be patented. So Kettering went back to his lab to find an additive that he could patent and exclusively profit from. And he did it again! This time, by mixing gas with a lead compound.
At this point in the early twenties, doctors had known about metal poisoning for about a century- many warned Kettering about the toxic side-effects of his new, innovative product. Moreover, when Kettering’s new gasoline went into production, in 1924, five workers in the oil refinery died, while many more were severely injured by breathing in fumes. Nevertheless, Kettering wanted to have his gas and went ahead with it. He even named his additive ‘Ethyl’, in an attempt to keep these pesky lead poising concerns from affecting the marketing.
Thus, cars kept burning lead gasoline, poisoning people and the environment for decades until regulations caught up in 1976. The lead compound began to slowly get phased out and replaced with… Ethanol.
The profit motive indeed guides Kettering to finding a solution for engine knocking and making driving easier for everyone. It also led him to toss that solution out the window and come up with one that happened to poison people. Under capitalism, products are created and distributed to make as much profit as possible. That’s what competition dictates.
Certainly, not every piece of profit-driven technology has as dire effects as ‘Ethyl’, yet the imprint of these market forces can be seen on every product around us, as well as on the absence of others. Hundreds of millions are spent every year on designing devices and gadgets to make the shapes, colours, even the sounds they produce as appealing as possible. On the other hand, research and discoveries that can’t be readily monetized are ignored by ambitious entrepreneurs and parts that aren’t maximally profitable are quickly replaced, producing technology that feels efficient but isn’t specifically designed to serve humanity. Most of our devices are created with planned obsolescence, recyclable products are made from first materials when it is cheaper, and research in renewable and fission energy has been hampered because they aren’t as profitable as oil or coal. These same effects can also be felt in the rapidly evolving landscape of social media, influencing our communication as well as our view of the world around us.
The currency of social media platforms is the time we spend looking at our screens and the interactions we have with them. The more we stay on these platforms, the more chances they get to sneak ads into our field of vision. Interactions such as likes or dislikes give them information on what is popular, in addition to what the user may respond to. This enables the aforementioned ads to become better targeted towards each user. Comments have the same effect while creating more content for others to interact with. The collected data can then be bundled and sold to advertisers or other interested parties.
It is understandable then, that content that generates more interactions will get further promoted by the algorithm of each platform. The catch is, we tend to react more to things that make us angry or upset over any other emotion, as many studies have shown. You may ask yourself what would make you more likely to leave a comment: a cute picture of a pet or a post berating your favourite show? You may also keep in mind that likes and positive comments generate as much viewing time and data as dislikes and negative comments. Negative comments can incite more interactions, so they work even better towards promoting the original post.
These market incentives and human tendencies create reactive cycles that promote divisive figures and have made many parts of the internet toxic. As much as we like to think of the internet as a free flow of information, it is evident that certain information gets a lot more engagement than others. This is not based on the quality of the content itself but rather its marketability. This is why even an easily understandable, yet dull document on the effect of climate change on the arctic sheets will never get the chance to reach as many eyeballs as a comment like this: “Climate change is fake. Interdimensional beings are melting Antarctica to free us from the flat earth.”
While it might take some time to overcome capitalism, we can start being more conscientious consumers much sooner. If you come across a post that upsets you, take a deep breath and think about how a dislike or a negative comment will help promote it. Just by skipping it, you let slide a step further towards obscurity, which is the worst possible fate for any piece of content. Try to support more wholesome content with your time and interactions. It will help your psyche and help build a better web for all of us.