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Social Media is Eating the Web

25 February 2018

Updated 09 March 2018: Misleading language. Facebook's JavaScript is 16% of the JavaScript size, not 16% of the code.

The social web of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other big social media sites is slowly eating the rest of the Internet. We know that social media only makes up part of the Internet, albeit a large and growing part, and that there are online destinations outside their networks. But, a lot of online destinations that aren’t part of the social web are still integrated with it, bringing social features and its associated tracking along for the ride. To put it bluntly, it’s getting harder to escape social media, and especially Facebook.

As we continue to get more connected across the Internet and our media habits are more integrated with the various social networks we’re part of, more sites now rely on social media to get visitors. It’s a good bet; more than half of people online are on Facebook and the average American spends over 40 minutes a day on it. Vox reportedly gets 40% of its visitors from Facebook and other sites might have even higher percentages. This means that Facebook is a major platform for providing people with links to what they see and changes to their feed could influence the habits of more than half of people online.

Though that’s probably not unexpected, Facebook’s reach is surprisingly wide and its position as a jumping-off point isn’t where things end. Sites that sport the Facebook “like,” “share,” or other buttons on their pages are allowing Facebook to track you across them, even if you’re not logged into Facebook. Six percent of the top 10,000 sites (in terms of traffic) load that code from Facebook’s servers. For an average website, 16% of the size of the JavaScript code loaded on pages (used for everything from interactivity to tracking) is from Facebook’s code and can make pages load slower. In turn, the data collected by that code drives what Facebook suggests and shows to you. Facebook appears to have even patented their way of gathering data about you this way.

Facebook is not the only social site that does this. Twitter actually announced they would start doing the same thing across websites that use Twitter code to show a “Tweet this” or “Follow me” button. Similar to Facebook, Twitter explains it uses this data to make more relevant suggestions to you, which means more tailored ads and suggestions of whom to follow, among other things. Other social media sites provide similar buttons that may have the ability to track you as well.

Seeing suggestions and social feeds that are more relevant to our interests isn’t, in and of itself, a problem. The problem is that sites are getting better at showing us ads that can change our views, and are actually more effective at doing so if we think they’re targeted to us. It makes our filter bubble, our increasingly isolated reflection of ourselves from the Internet, even more isolating. And, it may cost us more money as sites get better at showing us ads for things we don’t need, or if sites raise their prices just for us if they know we’re willing to pay more.

If nothing else, the data collected by these sites is valuable. Facebook accounts for a quarter of online ad revenue and more than a third on mobile. That’s not by accident; it’s by selling access to the data collected from across the Internet, which they make more valuable by collecting more of. It’s also risky. If Facebook, or any other social media site were to be breached or comply with a demand for information from a government, this highly personalized data could end up nearly anywhere, or used for nearly any purpose.

It also appears to be getting worse. Not only are social media sites being integrated into other websites, the reverse is true as well. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and several other media companies in 2015 that they would start publishing content directly to Facebook. Not only will we be tracked and have secret algorithms suggest news to us, but what we see as well as what’s available to the open Internet, is subject to the practices of the social network it’s on. We’ve already seen Facebook start, and then kill an initiative to expand the reach of news articles. The obvious end goal for Facebook is showing you more ads and tracking you better because you never need to leave, but a side effect could be more ability to manipulate what you think and what the media reports on.

Care about an open and neutral Internet? Check out my book, Please Upgrade for Access, at book.thenaterhood.com.

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