Human Footprints

“Eve’s footprint” is the name given to a set of fossilized footprints found in 1995 on the shore of Langebaan Lagoon, South Africa. The footprints are thought to be made by a human female approximately 117,000 years ago. If this is correct, it makes them the oldest known footprints of an anatomically-modern human. 

Your Different Footprints

You leave imprints of change as you walk through life. We call these changes, “Footprints.” For example, your “Carbon Footprint” is the amount of carbon dioxide, and other carbon compounds, that you emit due to your consumption of fossil fuels. Your “Ecological Footprint” is your impact on the environment. Your “Social Footprint” is your impact on your family, peers, and society. The Carbon, Ecological, and Social Footprints were the primary footprints left by humans since before Eve walked across the Langebaan Lagoon. But now, approximately 117,000 years after she did, humankind has developed a new set of footprints.

The Modern Footprint

With the advent of the computer in 1936, the creation of the internet in 1983, and the internet opening to the public in 1991, human beings began leaving a new set of footprints, the “Digital Footprint.” Your Digital Footprint is the trail you leave as a result of your online activity. Part of your Digital Footprint is your “Digital Social Footprint,” which is what you put on the internet to influence, impact, and entice its users (business sites, news sites, personal sites, streaming sites, and so on). A subset of your Digital Social Footprint is called your “Social Media Footprint,” which is the trail you leave behind every time you add comments, photos, videos, or anything else on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, LinkedIn, or any other social/business website. 

Digital Footprints On The Information Superhighway

In its infancy, the Internet was an information-sharing platform, used in the same way that humans used telegraphs, telephones, CB radios, ham radios, and tin cans connected by a string. In 1994, about 4.9% (about 12 million) Americans were on the internet. During that time, Digital Social Footprints were left in emails, chat rooms, news groups, and websites (of which there were about 10,000 according to Gray’s Statics). In 1995 Digital Social Footprints changed as retailers began to set up shop along the Information Superhighway. Now, in 2019, with 90% of Americans (about 300 million) using the Internet, it seems that a major percentage of the Digital Footprints being created are in an attempt to get (and keep) your attention for financial gain by any means necessary. This trend is likely to continue given that, in 2018, proximity…

  • $513.61 billion was spent online by consumers (digitalcommerce360)
  • $158.48 billion was made in online retail sales (digitalcommerce360)
  • $19.1 billion was made by selling music rights to streaming services (IFPI)
  • $35 billion was made by video streaming sites (Digital TV Research) 
  • $100 billion (plus) was made from digital advertising (CSNBC)

Footprint Debates

A great deal of debate goes into the effects that our footprints have on our society, and our world. Unfortunately, every debate seems like a “the end of the world is nigh” argument. Saying that “the world is going to end from our carbon footprints” has hurt more than helped the problem. This is because someone has been saying that “the world is going to end” for thousands upon thousands of years… so it’s something you get used to hearing, and becomes normalized. So, using “it’s the end of the word” as an argument to reduce your carbon footprint may not be as effective as something simpler like, “hey, if you lower your carbon footprint, you can breath fresh air and feel better.” 

Digital Footprint Debates

Our Digital Footprint has created a similar debate. In 1996, a study presented to the American Psychological Association by Dr. Kimberly Young—now considered an expert on Internet addiction disorder and behavior—was the first study to identify Internet addiction as a new disorder. In her study, she showed that the Digital Social Footprints left by others could be addictive to those that followed. Now, twenty-three years later, all manner of news stories and research studies are yelling, “The end of humanity is nigh.” The foundation of this belief being that, not only does continued use of a digital device cause psychological and biological side effects, but a great deal of the Digital Social Footprints left on the internet are designed to exploit these side effects to keep your attention, increase traffic, and boost sales. 

In the 1990s, people began reporting that they were experiencing addictions to America Online chat rooms. Interestingly enough, the chat rooms were not designed to be addictive; they just naturally turned out to be addictive.

Our species saw a similar issue with the tobacco industry. The Ecological and Social Footprints left by the tobacco industry changed in 1880, when James Bonsack created the cigarette-rolling machine. This invention made tobacco easily administrable to the masses. According to NCBI, twenty years after the machine was created, billions of cigarettes and cigars were sold yearly. In a way, America Online became the cigarette-rolling machine for the Internet, and smart phones became the vape pens.

Looking at it from this perspective should bring up some concerns. After all, you would never even think of giving an infant a vape pen but, everywhere you go, you see infants using smart phones like pacifiers—some would say adults often use them for the same reason.

Footprints With Additives

It was known way before the 1960s that cigarette smoking was bad for your health, and that it was addictive. But, those who produced the product wanted money, lots of it, regardless of the Social and Ecological Footprints they left behind. They even added, and continue to add, chemicals to make cigarettes MORE addictive than they are naturally—and they fully admit to this publicly. They also admitted to hiring advertising and marketing companies for the creation of manipulative, and often subliminal, marketing strategies to boost sales and cultivate new users. According to Forbs Magazine, they still do this today, and everyone profiting from the tobacco industry is well aware that the Social Footprint they leave behind is addictive and deadly. 

Like the tobacco industry, the Internet, and our “devices,” are now a goldmine for those skilled in manipulative marketing, behavioral reconditioning, and product addiction. Web designers and App developers have spent the past twenty-six years developing Digital Footprints that make the naturally addictive nature of the internet more addictive. And, like the tobacco industry, they fully admit to doing it. Some even take pride in it, boasting that they designed their site, or their App, to keep your attention by using hidden behavioral manipulation techniques called “persuasive design.” 

Infinite Scrolling

One persuasive design technique was created in 2006 by Aza Raskin. It’s called “infinite scrolling,” which was designed to keep users looking at their phones… indefinitely. According to BBC.com, Mr. Raskin said that he had not meant to addict people to their phones, “and he now felt guilty about it.”

Guilt or not, Mr. Raskin’s Digital Footprint, and others like his, have reshaped the internet and your devices. They are now MORE addictive than they were naturally. This is because the most addictive App or Website wins the attention of a user, and “attention” equals money.  

Worse Before Better?

The United States government has regulated what the tobacco industry can say and do. Yet, the Wallstreet Journal reports that the industry continues to grow, and it was worth $117 Billion just three years ago in 2016. Addiction is big business, not just for those who make it, but those who design, market, and provide it. The Internet is no different. I’m not exactly sure how much Internet and App use is worth, but I do know it exceeds $800 Billion. Therefore, given the history of the tobacco industry, and other industries like it, things are likely to get worse before regulations are put in place to protect consumers. Though, like the Tobacco industry, even if regulations are created, those who profit greatly from these addictive Digital Footprints will spend billions of dollars to fight, influence, and work around any restrictions that could result in a loss of profit. Because of this, you will have to learn how to protect yourself by becoming more conscious of, and educated on, the Digital Footprints you create and follow. 

My Own Experience With Digital Footprints

I’ve had a website on the Internet since 1999, and I have watched the Internet grow into what it is today. I never thought anything negative about the Internet, or App use, until I became a licensed counselor in 2010. As my client base grew, it seemed like a third of my clients were experiencing issues because of Internet use. Between 2010 and 2015, as more social media sites were created, it seemed like half of my clients were suffering from an issue caused by, or related to, Digital Social Footprints. Then, as the smartphone grew in its capabilities, and the Tablet became more popular, I noticed more and more couples coming in with issues caused by excessive device use. As of 2019, social media, smartphones, tablets, and all manner of Digital Footprints contribute to a major portion of the issues I see in my practice.

The End Is NOT Neigh

That being said, there are also a lot of positive Footprints being made in the world, Carbon, Ecological, and Digital. Contrary to popular opinion, the world is not all bad. If you look for it, good news is everywhere. Millions of people are trying to make a positive change, and many of them use Apps and the Internet to help make those changes. My purpose for writing this was not to bash the use of Apps and the Internet, but to understand why so many of my clients exhibit negative side effects from the use of them. 

By learning how the Internet and Apps have evolve, by researching the manipulative changes being made to their design and the effect those changes are having on those who use them, people can start protecting themselves, and their relationships, by applying their knowledge to the use of their devices.

And… maybe… one day… those who are leaving negative Digital Footprints will stand still for a moment and realize that, just like their Carbon and Ecological Footprints, their Digital Footprints change the shape of the world for everyone that follows, including themselves.

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