What everyone ought to know about Social Media

Technology has introduced both positive and negative impacts on society as a whole. It has made our lives easier but has also made people lazier. Social networking is one aspect of many people’s lives that may well be hindering them more than helping them. In his documentary, “Hyper Normalisation”, Adam Curtis refers to social media as an “echo chamber”, where the algorithms are so strong and know so much about you, they only give you what they know you like. Social media is not only narrowing our minds by excluding information that challenges our pre-existing beliefs, but the large corporations that run the social media platforms are exploiting weaknesses in our brains in an attempt to get us to behave in a way that suits them. These platforms have been specifically designed to take advantage of human psychology and this video delves further into how these giant online corporations control what people see and shape what they think.

Tristan Harris used to work for Google as a “Design Ethicist” but he now leads the Time Well Spent movement which promotes technology designed to help us spend our time well. He wrote an article outlining just a few of the thousands of techniques used on social media to manipulate our behaviour. Let’s explore some of these methods.

Intermittent Variable Rewards

Why is playing poker so addictive for some people? The reason is in the linking of an intermittent variable reward to a human action. The reward for playing a hand of poker could range from getting a good hand and winning a lot of money, to getting a bad hand and winning nothing, or anything in-between. This unpredictability of inconsistent and occasional rewards is what keeps a person playing and social media platforms are using the same psychological principal in their apps.

When Facebook displays a red icon showing us that we have a notification, we click it to see what’s underneath as we don’t know what it’s going to be about. When we’re looking at our Twitter feed, we keep scrolling as we don’t know which tweet will appear next (or who wrote it). Because likes, photos and tweets don’t appear on a set schedule, we check for them compulsively.

Bundling reasons

If you visit a supermarket for some bread and milk, have you ever noticed that often they are far away from each other or positioned at the far end of the store? This is deliberate so that to achieve your reason for going to the store — to get some bread and milk — you also achieve the store’s business need of maximising how much you buy, by walking past several other items for sale.

Social media uses the same method. When you log on to perform a specific task such as sending a tweet, you are shown your newsfeed. When you view your news feed on Facebook, you are shown top trends, a ticker of friends’ activities, people you may know and adverts. These are deliberately placed distractions.

Never ending

An easy way to get people to consume more content is to change an encounter that is finite and make it everlasting. News feeds are now never ending, continuously loading more content to keep you scrolling and avoid pausing or leaving the site. Sites such as YouTube now auto play the next video so you don’t need to make a conscious choice to continue watching, again achieving their goal of increasing the amount of time people spend on their site.

Menu Control

By controlling what is on the menu, you give the illusion of freedom and choice while allowing only options that benefit the creator of the menu. If you sit down at a restaurant and choose a meal from the menu, are you really eating what you want? People rarely think about what is not on the menu and why they’re given some particular options and not others. In certain cases, there may be an overwhelming array of choice on the menu to the point where the menu becomes a distraction. However, the menu with the most options is not always the one that empowers us the most. For example, if your aim is to eat a healthy meal, that will be more difficult to achieve if there is only fast-food on the menu and similarly, you don’t necessarily become more aware of what is going on in the world by just reading a menu of news feed stories tailored for you.

Foot in the door

The foot in the door phenomenon refers to the fact that people tend to be more likely to comply with a large request if they have already agreed to a smaller one. Social media companies utilise this strategy by asking people for a small request, i.e. “click here to see who liked your post”, and then ramping up from there offering several other options of engagement. Many people don’t estimate correctly how much time they spend on a site after that initial first click. Reading what somebody has written on your page may take a matter of seconds, but could result in half an hour browsing the site.

Fear of missing out

No matter how small the chance, the fear of missing out on something important is another psychological trait that is exacerbated by social media and keeps us using the services. People stay “friends” with other people on Facebook despite not talking to them for years, just in case they have something important to say. They also continuously browse their news feed so they don’t miss an important news story or lose track of what their friends are talking about.

It is important to note that despite the fact that when we stop using something, we will always miss out on things, we don’t miss what we don’t see.

Instant interruption

A message alert that instantly notifies a person when a message has been sent is a far more persuasive way of getting somebody to respond compared to other methods such as email. These constant interruptions mean you spend more time on the site but it has a detrimental effect on your attention span. One study estimated that owners of a smartphone check it 150 times a day. Switching off notifications will stop our attention being constantly interrupted.

Many social media platforms also include a feature that lets people know when you’ve viewed a message, so that you’re more obligated to respond. Snapchat takes it a step further and lets you know when your friend is typing a message, again obliging the person to always finish what they started and send the message.


Social reciprocity refers to how one person’s behaviour influences the behaviour of another person. For example, by doing somebody a favour, they may feel the need to owe you one next time. By following somebody online, many people would think it rude for them not to follow you back. Social media companies can manipulate this reciprocity to get you to spend more time on their platform. If you receive an email saying that you’ve been added as a friend, you may feel obliged to log on and accept the friendship request. In reality, the request may have come from a ‘People you may know’ list on the platform, rather than your friend making a conscious decision to find and add you, but the end result is that time spent on the site has increased.

Inconvenient choice

Despite giving a user a choice, the decision they make can still be influenced by making one choice harder to achieve than another. For example, if you want to permanently delete your account on Facebook, something that’s not in their interest for you to do; you can’t do so by simply logging in and navigating to your security settings. By doing that, you are only given the option to deactivate your account. To permanently delete it, you need to know a specific URL which is not linked in their settings but can be found in their help section, making it a task that’s more difficult and therefore less likely to be achieved.

Social Approval

It is a human motivation to feel that we belong and are appreciated by our friends. When we’re tagged in a photograph on social media by somebody we know, it suggests that we have been approved by our friend. However, often the technology companies suggest tagging faces in photos automatically, meaning they now control the approval rather than it being an independent, conscious choice by your friend.

In the same way, we are more vulnerable to social approval when we upload a new profile picture. Social media companies can rank these photos higher in their news feed, resulting in more likes and comments for you to interact with, meaning you’ll use the service more.

Technology is capable of persuading us to act in certain ways and cyberspace is constantly becoming more sophisticated and responsive to human interaction. The methods highlighted are just some of the ways we are being influenced and manipulated. By being aware of them, we can alter our behaviour to make informed choices rather than just relying on our impulses, which can be taken advantage of.

This video was inspired by Tristan Harris’ article on How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds.