This piece contains spoilers for Black Mirror episode Smithereens
Netflix’s Black Mirror focuses on dystopian technology. In new episode Smithereens though, the attention was on the data social networks collect on their users.
Since 2011, the show has explored nightmarish ideas of where technology could evolve. However, Season 5 episode Smithereens – released this month – is heavily rooted in our world. Aside from a few fictional apps, the setting is entirely recognisable, the story revolving around one man holding another hostage.
As the story unravels, principle character Chris wants to speak to the founder and CEO of social media app, Smithereen. CEO Billy Bauer takes a break from his silent retreat to listen to Chris confess his sins. Bearded and atop a mountain, Bauer is a Christ-like figure who claims he didn’t foresee his creation having these troubles. The episode ends with a gunshot, but we never see who from.
The episode is a cautionary tale on how much data people submit to websites. Our social media presence has an impact in the real world. The genius of Black Mirror though comes from how it presents our data habits. But how real is it?
“Social networks collect a lot of information about us in order to optimise our experience when using the platforms and profile us for advertisers,” says social media expert, Jodie Cook. As an award-winning social media consultant and speaker, Jodie has written books and articles on social media. Jodie is well aware of the data dangers of our favourite apps, suggesting Facebook and friends have more information on us than many of us realise.
“As users of social platforms, we access the platform for free in exchange for us being sold to,” Jodie says. “Every input contains information about us: where we live, where we work, who we are friends with, what we like, what we don’t like, our buying, viewing and commenting habits.”
In the episode, Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer phones Chris by finding his number via his social media account. Do we share that much data, that say, Mark Zuckerberg could call us if he wanted? Jodie thinks it’s possible but not realistic.
“In theory, Mark Zuckerberg could access the data of anyone using Facebook including their personal contact information. Even if specific information isn’t on an individual’s profile, they will likely have included it in a private message to a friend,” Jodie says. “In practice, this data is securely encrypted and Facebook go to great lengths to protect themselves from data, privacy or security breaches. In doing that, they make it difficult for individuals working at Facebook to access this data because it would leave gaps for exploitation.”
Could Facebook give up our data to the police?
One of the big themes of Smithereens is how a private company can have so much data on an individual. Could police officers and criminal bureaus consult with Facebook in future on big cases?
“If for any reason users suspect their data could be accessed and used for any purpose other than socialising, they’ll change their behaviour and may leave certain platforms altogether. Therefore, I don’t think the social networks themselves would offer this information up voluntarily, for several reasons,” says Jodie.
As users of social platforms, we access the platform for free in exchange for us being sold to.Jodie Cook
“However, if legislation was put in place that meant they had an obligation to [share data for criminal investigations], that would be a different playing field. There have been instances in the past whereby the authorities have insisted that a technology company reveal the information contained within one of their devices, and the technology company has refused.”
“I imagine that social networks would continue to fight any legislation that compromised the security and privacy of their users or set a dangerous precedent for the future.”
Could social media data mining develop along with tech?
“They’re collecting everything. Absolutely everything,” says Jodie, ominously. So with the rise of IoT and wearable tech, will social networks be able to collect even more data on us?
“Wearable technology avoids gaps in information gleaned because the user now has their information-collecting device in their home or strapped to them,” Jodie confirms. “Technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace and that includes the capability of components of IoT as well as the integration of AI into them. People will continue to increase their use of technology providing it makes life easier, cheaper or more interesting, which I think is inevitable.”
“Whether our use of social media as we know it will increase, I’m not sure: it depends on how you define social media. Younger generations are moving away from Facebook and spending more time in what are essentially virtual realities in games like Fortnite.”
“People are also spending huge amounts of time on streaming platforms such as Netflix and YouTube and the consumption of digital media is increasing. Whether that’s social media or not is another discussion.”
Social media has a grip on most of us
As the name suggests, Black Mirror is known for its bleak reflection of society. A black mirror though, after all, is a good description for any phone, tablet or device when switched off.
Despite being a specialist in the world of social media though, Jodie believes that time away from your phone isn’t just healthy, but essential. “Social media platforms are designed to be addictive to users so that they will spend longer on them,” she says.
“The endless scroll, the instant gratification and the notification alerts are all designed to give candy-dispenser-like bursts of addictive hormones such as oxytocin. Social networks play on the human need to be liked, noticed and needed. We keep uploading, commenting and checking because we are addicted to the buzz those notifications bring.”
Wearable technology avoids gaps in information gleaned because the user now has their information-collecting device strapped to them: technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace and that includes the capability of components of IoT as well as the integration of AI into them.Jodie Cook
So how can we break the cycle? Or are we destined to all follow the same route that Chris did in Smithereens, becoming addicted to artificial satisfaction until it impacts our lives in a tragic scenario?
“Cut down on your social media usage by logging out of platforms more often. One option is to remove the apps from your mobile phone and only log in from a laptop or desktop,” says Jodie.
“Another is to set ‘downtime’ or usage limits on your smartphone. Set boundaries – such as minutes spent on the platforms per day, or make a rule not to scroll social media when hanging out with your friends. The book Digital Minimalism recommends a 30-day detox of optional technologies, after which one can re-introduce those that are absolutely necessary, with rules around their use.”
Jodie Cook is the Sales director of JC Social Media and is an award-winning social media entrepreneur and business leader.