You get bored, nothing to do, the first thing you reach out is your phone, you go to facebook, instagram or twitter and you scroll, scroll, scroll. Then you have an important task to do, instead you get distracted and without realizing you open facebook, and scroll, scroll, scroll.
The world now got used to it, but social media addiction didn’t use to be so common, humanity was bored since the dawn of time, but we used to use it for other more fun, relaxing, productive, or even more stupid things, but not for mindless scrolling.
That’s because social networks were made to be addictive. Just like a casino slot machine, you pull the lever and you get nothing, most of the time, but then every once in a while you get the big prize: the cutest puppy video you’ve ever seen. Your brain feels it was all worth it, and you get hooked. For some people it’s more addictive then cigarettes.
This is why social networks refuse to have a feed in chronological order for example, they are not the most addictive, using algorithms to show you things that hooks you better gets you more addicted so they can sell more ads.
The feed is just a generalization of a broader idea: the least the user has to think the better. Before you had to navigate searching for content, now the algorithm chooses for you and feeds you. Same with the like button, before if you found a post interesting, you had to say it, like in real life, but now you just click a “like” button, effortlessly. Another example is twitter retweets, before if you wanted to share something you had to copy and paste it, and putting your face to it, now you just click a button, without much thinking. Some, like TikTok, don’t even need any explicit signal from you, they can decide weather you like something or not based on how long you pay attention to a video. All this makes users more and more passive, which helps addiction.
But how did those companies built apps like this? Are they evil masters of human psychology? No, they were simply experimenting with different features and looking at their metrics, following the ones that pushed their goals forward, the so called “user engagement”.
The problem is that people thought this metric was a good thing by itself, that users were using it more because they were happier with the product. But that’s not true. Engagement was used as a proxy for happiness, since you cannot measure happiness directly, but it’s not a good proxy, as you end up pushing things that actually makes people more miserable, but does increase engagement.
An analogy I make is broccoli, broccoli is good for you, but it doesn’t get a lot of engagement, because it’s not addictive. Cigarette is addictive, it may get you a bit of instant gratification, but it’s very bad in the long run.
That’s not news to anyone, but why don’t we have other alternatives then? Why don’t we have companies that were aware of this problem and decided against engagement at all costs? Simply put, because the ones that don’t play the game are either dead or just not popular anymore.
Because of network effect, social networks are more relevant if everyone is on it, having addictive practices gets you more users, and if don’t do them, Facebook will, stealing your users. That’s why when it seemed that Twitter was copying Facebook, with the “like” button or algorithmic feed, it was not really just copying, they probably did the same experiments, Facebook is just the conclusion.
And what would be the problem of losing your users? Why is it that social media companies need to keep growing? If companies are aware of the harm they are causing, why don’t they just stop? Well, capitalism of course! Shareholders want return over investment, so they will keep pushing for more profits, for more profits you need more ads, for more ads you need more users and more engagement.
An alternative approach
Just as I believe that the problem is capitalism demanding growth as the root, I believe the solution starts from there. But how? I believe the answer is in open-source and decentralization.
First, open-source will provide us the public space for discussion of what a social network that is better for humanity should look like, and if ideas diverge, anybody is free to fork, modify and extend it, the diversity of ideas will help us achieve a better solution.
Second, decentralization will ensure not too much power is accumulated in a central source, reducing creepy algorithms power and avoiding to have a single point of decision.
Both of those will also allow the network to live on very long for very cheap, no need for a big company with hundreds of data centers and thousands of employees to sustain it, so the pressure for infinite growth is off.
Then, to build on top of that, I believe a non-addictive social network should:
- NOT have a feed anyhow
- NOT have push notifications, those help build anxiety and addictiveness, therefore it should…
- Be asynchronous, you can check on your friends from time to time, when you feel like it, not when some app tells you to. If you need to get in touch with someone more real time, then you can use any chat app, there are billions available out there
- NOT have any mindless actions. “Like” buttons for instance, require extreme low effort, causing people to actually interact less with friends, also leading to social approval bias and anxieties
- NOT promote popular content, causing it to be even more popular. This got us memes and viral content, but it also leads to extreme views being more spread, as those get stronger reaction from people naturally, they will be shared more and more
- Have conscious shares. Sharing a content shouldn’t be a simple click (no mindless actions), otherwise it leads to people sharing too much others’ content instead of their own ideas, and you end up reading not about your friends, but just news and memes
- Be fun! Fun to use, play around, talk to your friends, after all this is what you are there for
This is something I’ve been thinking for a long time, so I gave my shot and built the solution I imagined: Feedless.
You may call me a nostalgic, but as a former enthusiast of social networks, I enjoyed a lot of early twitter, instagram and even facebook, only to then get disappointed with explosion of fake news, hate speech and such being completely overlooked, while platforms kept adding terrible new features (Removing chronological feed? Stories everywhere? 280 tweets? Audio tweets, really??). With Feedless, I tried to recover the early features I enjoyed from popular social networks, while sticking to all principles listed above to be non-addictive.
I will talk more about Feedless in a next post. For now, check it out for yourself: https://feedless.social/
Source code is on github.
Thank you very much for reading! Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Also, feel free to drop a message on my Feedless profile :)