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Is social media a young person's game? Do influencers get a huge paycheck for every picture they post? Do social media companies really sell your data to advertisers?

In this episode of Misconceptions, host Justin Dodd delves into some common myths surrounding the digital world of social media.


00:00:00 Intro
00:01:07 Social media owns whatever content you post
00:02:14 All influencers are wealthy
00:04:13 Social media sites sell your data to advertisers
00:05:49 Only young people use social media
00:06:49 Social media is free
00:08:00 We don't know how social media affects kids
00:08:53 Opting out of social media protects your privacy
The history of social media doesn't start with Myspace, Friendster, or LiveJournal. According to many experts, one of the first notable social media sites went live in 1997. allowed users to create personal profiles, connect with other users, and list their friends. The platform had millions of members at its peak, but its success was short-lived. Less than half of American adults were online in 1998, which made it difficult to recreate real-life social circles on the internet. founder Andrew Weinreich sold the site to Youthstream Media Networks in 1999, and it shut down in 2000. The subsequent successes of sites like Myspace and Facebook, which also offered friend lists and profile pages, suggests the service was a bit ahead of its time. 

Hi, I'm Justin Dodd and today we're talking about some common misconceptions about social media. Don't forget to like this video by the way, post about it on Instagram, and share on Facebook for your parents to see. Let's get started.


Social media owns whatever content you post. 

If you just snapped the sunset photo that could finally launch your photography career, you may be hesitant to share it to Instagram. But posting something to the grid doesn't mean you won't be able to sell it to an art gallery later. In general, as long as you're the original creator, you hold the copyright of any content you share on social media. That said, by posting your pictures online, you're giving these platforms significant power over how they're used. 

When you sign up for most social media sites, you grant them a license to publish your photographs however they like, even to make a profit. In some cases, these companies can license your work to third parties both on and offline. That means that theoretically, if it's allowed in their terms and conditions, you know those things that you always remember to read, a website could decide to sell or otherwise use a photo you took. 

If another user swipes pictures from your account for commercial use, you might be on stronger footing. There have been some successful lawsuits on that front, though others never really went anywhere. Keep that in mind the next time you're tempted to share your embarrassing baby pictures with the world.

All influencers are wealthy.

In 2019, Merriam-Webster recognized the term influencer to mean “a person who's able to generate interest in something…by posting about it on social media.” These elite social media users are often viewed as the celebrities of the internet era. It's easy to see how some people conflate them with uber-wealthy movie stars and pop singers, but the average influencer pulls in a pretty average income. According to a Vox interview from 2018 with representative from an influencer agency, someone with up to 10,000 social media followers could earn between 30,000 and 60,000 dollars annually through sponsorship deals. While influencers with up to 50,000 followers could potentially make a $100,000. The exact number depends on multiple factors like what platform the creator is working from. The industry baseline for sponsored posts on Instagram is roughly a $100 per 10,000 followers, while smaller TikTok influencers tend to earn more per post. Of course, it is possible to get rich off your social media presence once users surpass half a million followers. Brands may start to offer them thousands of dollars per piece of branded content.

But these macro and mega influencers are in the minority, and many of the highest paid posters were already famous in other industries before gaining influence online. The most lucrative Instagram account belongs to Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo who, according to a 2022 report, earns nearly 2.4 million dollars for every post he shares to his roughly half a billion followers. Influencers aren't strictly paid in cash however. The designer clothes they wear, products they use, and trips they take to exotic locations are often covered by the company sponsoring them. By showing off luxury goods and experiences they did not purchase themselves, influencers may contribute to the misconception that they are wealthier than they actually are. By the way, if Goodwill wants to sponsor me, hit me up.

Social media sites sell your data to advertisers.

Selling users personal data to advertisers is often cited among social media's greatest defenses. It's also one of the most misunderstood aspects of their business model. When sites like Facebook promise they aren't selling your information, they're actually not lying. The truth is that most major social media sites don't sell user data directly to advertisers. Instead, they sell space for targeted ads which are aimed at a certain demographic of web user. That means if a fashion brand wants to advertise to West Coast-based women between 18 and 25 years old, Facebook can sell them ad space that appears in front of that type of user. So if you click an online advertisement, the brand may already have a good idea of who you are, and it can learn even more through embedded trackers, which can see everything from your search history to your IP address.

Though this practice may still feel shady to some people, social media companies argue that it's different from packaging personal information in a file and selling it like data brokers do. These companies collect data on individuals from public records, as well as more sensitive sources like credit card transactions and web browsing history. They then sell the information to third parties, usually without the individual's knowledge. Though Facebook, now Meta, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg did consider charging a fee to access user data at one point. The company made it clear the plan never came to fruition. Of course those nuances don't mean much when you've been hounded by the same air fryer ads since casually searching for one in 2019. Just leave me alone already.

Only young people use social media.

The stereotype of social media as a young person's activity may have been accurate 20 years ago, but that's no longer the case. The majority of all Americans ages 18 to 64 report using social media according to a 2021 Pew survey. Young people do outnumber older users, though not by much. 84% of adults ages 18 to 29 are on social media compared to 81% percent of adults between 30 to 49 and 73% between 50 to 64.

The age differences become more apparent when you break down social media usage by site. The youngest respondents were more likely to use Instagram and TikTok, while Facebook was the most popular with people over 30. Shocker. Seniors over 65 make up the smallest portion of social media users, but they're one of the fastest growing demographics. Between 2010 and 2022, the social media presence of this group quadrupled while usage stayed about the same for young adults during the same period.

Social media is free.

Social media would likely be way less popular across demographics if more sites charged a fee. For now, it doesn't really cost anything to sign up for basic accounts on TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook. But that doesn't mean you aren't paying in other ways. In exchange for access to these services, users are giving up their time and attention. which generates billions of dollars in ad revenue annually. This is why so many social media sites prioritize an addictive user experience over a pleasant one. Everything from endless feeds to algorithms that promote inflammatory content are examples of this. Sharing personal content, the main appeal of social media for many users, is another way people end up paying. Unlike most online magazines or streaming services, social media sites rely on their user base to produce free content for them. Viral posts and videos made by unpaid content creators attract eyeballs to these sites that add to their bottom line. 

So is social media really free? Yes and no. To find out the real answer though subscribe to the Misconceptions patreon for just 9.99 a month. I'm kidding. It's 12.99. 

We don't know how social media affects kids.

Social media is still new relative to other forms of media, but that doesn't mean we don't know the impact it has on users. Children and teens seem especially vulnerable to its negative effects. According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, adolescents who spent more than three hours a day on social media sites were at higher risk for mental health issues. Even Facebook admits that its products can be harmful. In 2020, researchers for Instagram (which Facebook owns) reported that 32% of teen girls said Instagram makes them feel worse about their bodies when they're feeling bad to begin with. 

These trends coincide with reports of “feelings of sadness or hopelessness” among American high school students, reaching all-time highs. From the evidence we do have, it's safe to say most of us could benefit from reducing our screen time.

Opting out of social media protects your privacy.

With the bad press surrounding the privacy policies of Facebook and other social media giants, you may assume the best way to protect your data is to just opt out altogether. It turns out even that is not enough to stay off the grid. While testifying to Congress in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg admitted to collecting information on people who never signed up for the platform. These shadow profiles, as they're known informally, are based on data from third-parties, including your friends who are on Facebook. When users give up access to their phone contacts, they're sharing someone else's personal information without their permission; Information the company then files away.

So regardless of whether you use it. Facebook may already know your name, phone number, and even what you look like. There isn't much non-users can do to stop this. You could always move to a remote cabin in the wilderness, but if your brother still posts about you every year on National Siblings Day, it won't make a huge difference. 

Remember to assess your own social media use and to follow Mental Floss on Instagram, Discord, TikTok, and Twitter. Thanks for watching and we'll see you next time.