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‘The Social Dilemma’ may cause you to unplug

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If you think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the greatest tools since the discovery of fire, you need to watch the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.” What you will learn is that we are not using social media platforms as much as they are exploiting us.

The ugly truth, as told in interviews with men and women who helped to build social media companies but have now become skeptical of their power, is that we users are nothing more than an “extractable resource.” Our attention to devices is gathered and sold in mountains of data that are worth untold billions to advertisers worldwide.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, opines that “Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.” Ann Lembke, an addiction expert at Stanford University, explains why we can’t detach ourselves from our screens: Social media companies have learned how to exploit the brain’s evolutionary need for interpersonal connection.

As it turns out that is the Frankenstein that the well-intentioned people in Jeff Orlowski’s documentary lament having helped to create. In a recent review of the documentary written by Devika Girish, she writes that “They claim that the manipulation of human behavior for profit is coded into these companies with Machiavellian precision: Infinite scrolling and push notifications keep users constantly engaged; personalized recommendations use data not just to predict but also to influence our actions, turning users into easy prey for advertisers and propagandists.”

Justin Rosenstein, a former designer for Facebook and engineer for Google, says in the documentary that we mistakenly think of all of the services on the internet as being free. “But they are not free. They are paid for by advertisers. They pay in exchange for showing their ads to us. We are the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.”

Or as another participant points out: “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

Jaron Lanier, founding father of Virtual Reality and a computer scientist, puts a finer point on that description. “That’s a little too simplistic. It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product. Changing what you do, what you think, who you are.”

Certainly there is complete agreement about the notion that everything we do online is being tracked, measured and recorded.

“Exactly what image you stop and look at and for how long,” says former Twitter executive Jeff Seibert. “They know when people are lonely, they know when people are depressed, they know we are looking at photos of ex-romantic partners, they know what you are doing late at night, they know the entire thing. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert or what kind of neurosis you have.”

All of that data is then used to build a model of each of us, a sort of avatar, according to the documentary. The more complete the model, the better the social media companies are able to predict our actions, which is exactly what advertisers are banking on.

At the end of the day, the three goals of social media companies are engagement, growth and advertising. The goals are powered by algorithms whose job is to decide what to show you to keep those numbers going up.

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook, says that as a tool of persuasion Facebook may be the greatest thing ever created. “Now imagine what that means in the hands of a dictator or authoritarian. If you want to control the population of your country, there has never been a tool as effective as Facebook.”

In the end, Lanier says he knows that everyone is not going to delete their social media accounts. However, he insists that if some do, it creates space for a conversation that isn’t bounded by the manipulation engines.

Watch the documentary at your own peril, because some of you will choose to unplug. And if not you, keep the screens out of the hands of your kids for as long as possible.

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NEWS

Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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Searchenginejournal.com

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