This is how social networks use your data

Data is creating a profile of us through social networks

Those free social networks you use are not entirely free. You’re paying for them, just not with money. Data is the currency, and they’re collecting a lot of it.

There are now almost 3.5 billion active social media users in the world. This figure accounts for 45% of the population. In the UK alone there a 45 million active social media users. There is no denying it, the numbers don’t lie. The majority of us are addicted to social media. 

Many of us check our mobile phones every 12 minutes for the latest updates, spending on average almost two hours a day engaged with our social networks, at the mercy of their advertisements and curated content. 



What data do social networks collect? 

As cloud technologies proliferate, the amount of data being collected is growing continuously. It is growing so much, in fact, that it is becoming almost unmanageable for some companies. Many simply do not know what to do with it, or they lack the technology to store it safely and analyse it effectively.

However, when used correctly it can provide answers to questions. Companies might be able to understand how to retain customers, how to gain an edge over competitors, and how to show people exactly what they want to see.

Many of use more than one social networking app, all of which collect user data
Over 3 billion people use social networks on their mobile device.

They begin by collecting basic sign up details: your name, age, gender and location. They are then able to build a data pack including everything you interact with, every like, every status update and every photograph you upload. Then there are birthdays, searches, clicks, time spent watching or reading, conversations with friends and loved ones. The list is exhaustive. 

Google knows every word you’ve ever searched – and deleted – and every YouTube video you’ve ever watched. They know exactly where you’ve been from the moment you started using their service on your smartphone. Not only do they know where you’ve been, but how long you were there.

You can now see a detailed account of your own location history. Click here: myactivity.google.com/myactivity

How do they use your data?

Social networks might not use everything, but they are constantly collecting it. The sites who do use it are able to build a complex picture of their users with AI and advanced analytics. Two of the most prominent uses of your data are as follows.

Ads: This is by far the most talked about use of your data. It’s no surprise that, after building a profile of a user, an algorithm kicks in and offers them relevant goods or services. In fact, it’s one of the most transparent features on social network, and it’s a lucrative business. Google’s ad sales totalled $116 billion last year, while Facebook made $55 billion.

Curated content: To influence decision making, websites and social networks have become adept at understanding a users’ psychology. Looking at the time a user spends on an post or a video, they are able to pinpoint the exact moment a user is more inclined to make a decision to download a mobile game or book a flight to Lisbon. 

While not all data collection is nefarious, it can be argued that the sheer amount of data collected is unnecessary, given that many of them don’t use the majority of it. Social networks have long been under fire for breaching privacy, and some sites are no stranger to scandals. In the past few years, because of user push-back, many social networks are becoming more transparent when it comes to data collection and use. Now many of us sign up willingly. It is the price we chose to pay for a “free” service half of the world now use, but few understand.


What do you think? Are you willing to trade your data to continue using these social networks for free? Let us know on Twitter.


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Article written by:
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Ben Kansy

Ben is a multimedia journalist with a keen passion for technology and art.

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