Published in May-Jun 2021
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Zoom announced the milestone of 300 million daily meeting participants. Today, Zoom registers over 3.3 trillion annual meeting minutes and in Q4 FY 2021, it generated $882 million – a year-on-year increase of nearly 400%. Pakistan too is among the countries that saw a surge in internet users during this period. With 61.34 million internet users in January 2021, Pakistan increased its numbers by 21% from 2020. This means that in a year, Pakistan added 11 million new internet users to its database. Of these, 46 million are people who specifically direct their attention to social media – and it may be safe to assume they are the ones most exposed to apps.
The pandemic did push Pakistan towards a digital change, whereby grocery apps such as GrocerApp, Keryana.pk and OctoberNow emerged. At the same time, existing businesses, like Airlift, Cheetay and Foodpanda either added to their services or pivoted to cater to this change. These innovations certainly helped in getting us all through the pandemic and made our entrepreneurs more resilient to change – although we are still talking about a very small chunk of the population; the majority of internet users are limited in their capacity to use these and other apps.
This being said, anything in excess is harmful (we may believe this, although we often forget to apply this to ourselves). An average smartphone user, regardless of their social, financial or geographic background, is likely to use a select few apps, namely, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. They require the least amount of understanding to use them and are mainly focused on entertainment. WhatsApp’s voice feature makes it easy for anyone to use it, even if they don’t know how to read or write. YouTube’s ability to suggest relevant content as per a user profile makes it easy to hop from video to video without much thought. Then, the increase in usage of apps such as TikTok have brought content creation into the hands of the average mobile phone user. However, whereas it has equalised the market for viewership, it has also plunged young minds into a world of make-believe. Intelligent content is no longer an expectation on social media.
Apps equally impact the user and those around them. According to Google Trends, in 2021 one of the top searches on YouTube was ‘cartoons’. Most phone users are unaware about the child protection feature on these apps and often leave the phone unmonitored in the hands of children. This has exposed a large percentage of children under 10 years of age to adult content. Similarly, Instagram has emerged as a widely used app for people who want to expand their business. Although Instagram has generated economic activity and benefited small businesses, this is not the primary reason why this app is used. Instagram has become a platform to promote an ‘aesthetic life’ and the majority of the content revolves around lives of ‘influencers’ (of any category), their reviews, opinions and ‘routines’. This is where the boundary between reality and narrative and perceptions blurs.
Before going into what irresponsible usage of apps can do to an average mind, privacy is another point of contention. The purpose of any app (which is essentially a business) is profit generation and this is primarily made by collecting user data. To the app, you are not a living person, you are an address, a date of birth, gender, marital status, credit card information and browsing trends (to name a few). Based on these metrics, these apps constantly show you a reality best suited to you. Facebook has had data breaches of over 533 million users in over 106 countries. Similar breaches have taken place on multiple apps that use Google or Amazon as their cloud servers, but because this information is technical, these breaches are often overlooked by the average user. The conclusion is simple; what you make available about yourself on the internet is never erased – ever. They can be your photos, videos, chat history, browsing history, spending history, status updates, stories or anything else.
There is also a point of consent that is not taken into consideration. Apps like Snapchat that leave no history of the videos shared make it easy to pry into the privacy of unsuspecting people. These breaches can be of a professional or personal nature and can be damaging. Admittedly, citizen journalism has spread awareness about injustice, crime and vandalism; however, the debate at this point rests on one word – responsibility.
Social media’s ability to change narratives and perceptions is the most pressing issue in this matter. An app increases ease of usage and makes available a range of information that you may or may not need at the click of a button. Social media is where you post your ‘best’ self and those viewing you take this as a standard for their own lives. An average social media user lives passively through the life of an ‘account’ he or she follows. The app does not identify you as a human; it identifies you as a metric. Hence, what it shows of you is based only on what you click. But, think for a moment; who identified these ‘clicks’ to be your choices to begin with? Who determined that you should follow a particular account? When you are constantly shown content that is ‘similar’ in nature to what you already view, how much of your ‘reality’ is true?
Every social media platform has the power to put together a narrative. If you don’t learn to know what is right for you, you will buy into narratives that will make you lose your sense of ‘self’. I always say, the best thing to know is to know what not to know. Do you know what not to know?
Nabeel Qadeer is CEO, InfinIT Global Labs, Co-Founder, Innovation District 92 and host/content producer of Idea Croron Ka. firstname.lastname@example.org