Frances Cowell, discusses how annoying is it when supermarkets move things around so it takes you longer to find what you want. Could it be to get you to spend more time there, knowing you’re likely to pick up stuff that you otherwise would not buy? 

Why are the exits in shopping malls hard to find? Is it so you’ll wander into shops you otherwise would not bother with? Have you noticed that in department stores cash registers can be fiendishly hard to find? And when you do find them the queue is interminable, with lots of tactically-placed gadgets and things that happen to appeal especially to the children you have in tow? The exits there, too, are often poorly indicated, and spotting the escalators is a fine art.

Why exactly do you have to check in three hours before your flight, only to spend the best part of two hours killing time in what looks like an over-priced shopping mall?

These tactics have become standard practice of big retailers. For many of us the extra money we spend is bad enough, but what really costs is the waste of our time. If you are lucky, you may be able to shop elsewhere, go to another supermarket, but you’ll probably find the same thing, and there may be no practical alternative to a supermarket for what you need. In this sense, you are semi-captive.

Are Facebook and other social media doing something similar? Does it seem that items that you found easily yesterday are hard to find today? But you know they’re there, so you keep looking. Is Facebook trying to get you to hover your mouse longer over things you’re not really interested in, to click on links you otherwise wouldn’t? Do you find some social media platforms work more slowly on your device than, say, the website you’re reading this article on?

But why would Facebook et al want to frustrate its users?

As a user, you can be semi-captive to social media platforms. You have an account there because that’s where all you friends are. You could of course leave and use a different platform, but then you’d lose access to those interactions unless you can persuade all your friends to do the same – simultaneously. You – and they – we – are semi-captive.

Facebook et al make money from their advertisers. The rates they command depend, among other things, on the number of users, the amount of time each spends on the platform and which links they click on. Advertisers allocate their budgets between various social media platforms, such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – and to off-line advertising, such as magazines and newspapers, television and radio. Advertisers have a bit more choice than users, so they are much less captive than you, as a user, are.

The social media platforms therefore have a big incentive to keep you roaming around their site, clicking as long as possible while you waste your valuable time and hand over ever more valuable data to them.

While social media may appear cost-free to ordinary users, it is anything but. The currency though, is your data. Advertisements on social media are paid for in cash. How long before advertisers object to paying for inflated user statistics?


Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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