What We Might Not Want to Know About the Current and Future Web

The Facebook Inc. logo is reflected in the eyeglasses of a user in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 201
The Facebook Inc. logo is reflected in the eyeglasses of a user in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Facebook Inc., the biggest social-networking company, is working to fix a security flaw that let people view other users' private photos, including those of Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I believe that there have been few times in history when man has seen himself as "the center of the universe." in Italy in 1300, humans became aware of their gifts and took pride in them: it gave rise to humanism and, later on, to the Renaissance. After 2000, the last time that man saw himself as "the center of the universe" was when 200 people liked his photo accompanied by a quote no historic figure ever said.

If we want to know why the use of social networks is becoming more and more impulsive, we need to read what the most renowned sociologists have written on the subject. One of the key reasons is "the hyper-connected being." We use our smartphones almost everywhere, almost all of the time, disconnecting ourselves from reality to keep up our virtual relationships. I've read many times that "social networks are used to get five minutes of fame." It's hard to disprove this assertion, since it wasn't so long ago that a beautiful girl who posted her backside on Instagram wound up in newspapers all over the world. We also use it to validate our ideas, to flaunt our achievements and positive attributes. The Internet has changed rapidly in recent years, and some miss the web of old. In a Guardian article about Facebook, one user commented "I deleted my Facebook; I used to use it for its original purpose of reconnecting with and finding people who had fallen out of touch. Now it's completely different." We use social networks to stay informed and to learn; it matters little whether the news we are reading is true. It just takes one click, one share, and the news becomes real. In Italy, a fake daily wrote an article about a minister who proposed killing cats and dogs to feed immigrants of the country. Within a few hours the article had generated thousands of comments on Facebook and had been shared by over 50,000 people who actually lauded the return of fascism.

We have transformed the tools, and the companies have only accommodated our behavior by making them increasingly more powerful and immediate. No wonder people like Evgeny Morozov have sarcastically commented "to save everything, click here."

So it happened that over the years social networks and IMs developed into something unique. You chat and share with everyone what you do, what you say, what you think. They have even caught on in China, where Wechat has rapidly become a huge success all over the world, despite the fact that its security standards and weak structure place the privacy of its users at risk. Together Wechat, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp and many other applications (such as the one that share your GPS position with your friends "to show where you are in the car all of the time") offer us all that we want, "for free," of course.

Who knows if some developers have ever read what the FTC wrote, when about a year ago they released a document on their website calling for applications that are more transparent and respectful of users. Who knows.

If you don't already know the saying "if you are not paying for the product, you are the product" you'd do well to learn it right away.

The huge transformation of increasingly more appealing and functional social networks has coincided with the creation of another industry run by a few thousand people: the industry that uses more- or- less legal technology to falsify the numbers and ideas on our preferred social networks. Fake Twitter followers, fake likes on Instagram and Facebook, positive or negative comments about something or someone ostensibly written by people, but in reality written by software-generated bots (and other services I could write about for days). When we don't realize that we are being taken in by these inflated numbers, we continue to trust our social networks and want to become part of the 1 percent that has so many followers and likes, because anyone can do it. Because there's room for everyone on the Internet.

And so there are three players in this drama: the social networks, the users, and the companies that specialize in diddling the numbers. As an independent researcher (thanks to the Nexa Center for Internet & Society that hosted a presentation on their website), I published research about Twitter and Facebook in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian showing that very often the first to falsify numbers and comments are the companies themselves, the biggest brands in the world.

It becomes a vicious cycle. The social networks and new hyper-connected apps give us space and importance (no matter that it is a software, and not a person that likes our ideas) and we continue to share everything we can and more.

Everybody has caught on, even fledgling developers who only need to offer a product that the user is ready to accept without reading the famous "privacy policy" or Terms of Service. So we download a free application to modify our photos and in exchange we give the application the entire SD card archive, our texts, calls, address book; we install third-party ad services, and so on and so forth.

Even though some of the games and applications with incredible graphics we use may seem to have been created by Santa's elves, that doesn't mean that we are in good hands. Many researchers have realized this and denounced improper practices such as nonexistent or hidden privacy policies, but also much more serious behavior. Applications that require you to install other applications or services before you can continue to use them. Games that use the excuse of "improving your experience" to do a real-time inspection of your every move, then link the data from your player profile to your Facebook account. Then there are services that save everything, even what you write then delete before sending, and what links, images and sounds you send.

Even if you close the site or the application, these "social" services continue to collect your information in the background.