Facebook is a beautiful slot machine + A secret hack to help you quit your addiction

I love Facebook. They’re one of the most innovative product companies in the world and their core technology has shaped how we interact more than anything else since the mobile phone.

To be clear, I also like people being responsible for their own behaviour and have little problem with a business that gives us great products for free, ruthlessly mining our attention in order to fill every nook and cranny of our brain with ads.

A lot of attention has lately been paid to the Big F, ripping off any and every update shipped by Snapchat in the last couple of years. From ephemeral messaging, to filters and stories, no one is even denying where these features are being copied from.

However, while regularly dumping otherwise valuable attention into Facebook’s various products, whether Instagram, Messenger or the dreaded timeline, I can’t help noticing the similarities between Facebook features and another highly addictive and culturally ingrained product that I haven’t heard anyone at Facebook readily admit to. The Pokies (non-Aussies, Pokies is Australian for slot machines).

One of the favourite frameworks in Startup Land for measuring a product’s effectiveness is Dave McClure’s “AARRR” or “Pirate Metrics” framework where AARRR stands for:

Acquisition
Activation
Retention
Referral
Revenue

Not surprisingly the old One-Armed Bandit is really good at Pirate Metrics. The below statistics for Pokie-orientated gambling addiction in Australia are a proxy for retention/revenue metrics that would make almost any product owner jealous.

It’s therefore not surprising that the greatest product company in the world wants to borrow from another rival that has an established record in capturing our attention, with fantastic retention and revenue numbers to boot.

So how has Facebook been inspired by the Pokies? I’ve collected a few examples…

The reward animations actually look like the Pokies

Facebook’s currency is Likes. It’s a social currency and the closer your sense of social status and personal worth are related to the ability to generate Likes, the greater Facebook’s worth as a marketplace for attention.

The Pokies currency is also attention but it’s attention paid for, by the spin, in actual currency.

Sometime last year Facebook’s added a new feature, which adds a distinctly Pokies like animation when a post of yours garners a precious new Like. This animation sequence made clearer than anything I noticed before that someone was trying to turn Facebook into the fruit machine of mobile app world.

Facebook’s new ‘Like’ animation vs Pokies ‘win’ animation.

This one is almost too obvious, like they’re not even trying to be subtle anymore, however the similarities continue beyond the superficial into behavioural psychology territory.

Variable rewards

For our pattern recognition orientated brains, variability is psychological kryptonite. The degree to which varying the payoff for the same behaviour drives us crazy was studied by renowned psychologist B.F Skinner in the 1950’s. Skinner did this by building a feed box for pigeons which required them to press on a lever to dispense a tasty snack. To everyone’s surprise, when the box was altered not to dispense food every time but instead at a random interval, the pigeons pressed the lever more often.

Skinner himself noted the similarities between his Box and the design of slot machines. To this day, the Pokies work the same way, doling out small bursts of satisfaction at random intervals all the while never quite satisfying the player’s desire for a big pay off.

Facebook’s notification centre has inadvertently created a Skinner Box for Likes. Likes are not doled out with the programmed payout percentage algorithm of a slot machine, however for a user hooked on social currency, posting on Facebook is the equivalent of dropping money into a machine. Refreshing notifications becomes the equivalent of hitting the ‘Spin’ button and every spin yields a potential, unknown reward, payable in precious Likes.

Product Ethicist, Tristain Harris, speaking about Twitter, does a far more eloquent job than me explaining one manifestation of this technique in a recent interview with Kara Swisher of Recode. Harris mentions the built in delay between when the Twitter screen first loads and then, like the reels of a slot machine, your individual notifications appears across the top status bar. It’s the extra one or two seconds of anticipatory delay that make us hungry to know how the internet reacted to our latest selfie, snarky comment or sprawling Medium post.

Promoting chasing behaviour

On the weekend I was at a below average pub with some mates when a couple of them (both quants with serious maths brains) quietly disappeared during a round. Thirty minutes later, as it was time to leave, I found them both having a slap on the Pokies. They had both placed the same amount of money in a machine. While the first had dutifully lost it all, Quant number 2, who had previously been up more than double his original bet was now down to single dollars worth of credit and seriously considering topping the machine up with another note.

When asked why, despite the fact we were all about to leave without him, he wouldn’t simply take his win and leave, the reply was simple and highly instructive, “that’s not how it works idiot! You gotta win big!”.

This type of behaviour is known as “chasing” and has been identified as “one of the central characteristics of the behavior of pathological gamblers”.

This same type of chasing behaviour happens from day one of your Facebook account. From a first post garnering a few odd likes to people paying $15,000 to stage the perfect engagement pic for Instagram, we’re conditioned to chase greater and greater rewards, measured in Likes, hearts and comments, all the while hoping to “win big” in the Like lottery.

The secret hack that helps you keep Facebook without feeling dumb

A long session of browsing social media can make you feel dumb. However removing yourself from Facebook can lead to perceptions that you’re a hermit or just moved to Melbourne and are now “like totally, post-social media”.

What it looks like to be “like totally, post-social media”.

Both totally understandable modern concerns.

There is however an in-between point. The happy medium comes almost unsurprisingly from the makers of the piece of technology that got you into trouble in the first place, Facebook.

It’s called Facebook Lite and it’s the 3rd world, Android-only version of Facebook designed to run on 2G internet connections and devices that still play snake.

About Facebook Lite

Aside from being the best way to post a status update about the poor quality of the network in places not yet lucky enough to enjoy first world problems, from a device standpoint, Facebook Lite, will make your Facebook experience:

  • Consume less battery
  • Load faster
  • Consume less storage space
  • Use less RAM

More importantly, using Facebook should become far less rewarding from a dopamine addicted pigeon’s point of view.

Facebook Lite via TechCrunch

What’s different, why’s it less Pokies-like?

Swiping functionality is gone so it takes longer to do some of the stuff that drags out your browsing sessions. I’ve seen old movies where people once pulled a mechanical handle to spin a slot machine. In no Australian pub or club have I ever seen a handle on the Pokies. I have however witnessed people I don’t think could physically pull a handle without a mechanical aid on their mobility scooter spend long hours tapping the “spin” button.

Naturally, whether you’re designing a machine to reward people with social validation or a crippling gambling addiction, removing friction is UX design 101. Leverage your own laziness by letting the extra work involved in reaching the next status update be the barrier that helps you never learn what the “9 types of intelligence” are.

Animations are also gone in Lite. This includes the classic slot machine style ‘win animation’ when you receive a new Like on a post. We’ve been over this one. No one needs it in their life. Good riddance.

The anticipation building delays, the ones that cause the dopamine levels to build in your brain before flooding it with tiny bursts of euphoria and your soul to ache after an hour of continuous refreshing without a Like? They are also absent in Lite or at least dramatically shortened. The lack of these feature should also be useful for weaning yourself off the Skinner’s Box of social validation.

Finally, videos, one of the easiest ways to get lost in an hours long rabbithole, will not play on the Facebook Lite app. No longer will you be compelled to watch endless, autoplaying iPhone footage of blokes jumping off roofs or old school Rugby League fights.

Are there any major drawbacks?

There are a few downsides to the Facebook Lite app, namely:

  1. It’s Android only.

For me this takes it totally off the table. I’ll take an eternity of psychological manipulation before confronting the prospect of being returned to an iPhone-less primordium.

The core functionality, the stuff that helps you actually interact with other people, it’s essentially all there; Likes, comments, timeline and wall all exist and Messenger remains inside the main app.

What’s missing is some of the more addictive content, namely video, and all the beautiful, polished pieces of interaction design that make the Facebook app so delightful to use and also so damn addictive. Switching to Lite, you get perks of not being a hermit without a lot of the shiny/annoying stuff that feeds your addiction.

Would you trade up/down to Facebook Lite? Let me know how you go.