Network Inequality
Anil Dash

What emotions do our apps inspire?

Both FOMO (the “Fear of Missing Out”) and the joy of missing out are emotional states that our apps induce in our users. Those of us who create apps need to take responsibility for how we make people feel.

This piece is part of my series about how we can move toward humane tech.

Earlier this week, WNYC’s “Note to Self” published a great conversation that I got to have with my old friend Caterina Fake, called When FOMO meets JOMO.

Caterina, of course, famously popularized the term FOMO with her brilliant post a few years ago. As I’ve said numerous times since, anybody else who created such a powerful cultural meme would probably have become completely insufferable.

I added my own response some time later when I realized that I found some joy in missing out on all the ostensibly cool things that I saw happening on social media. Thus, JOMO. And interestingly, JOMO took on a life of its own in the years since, regularly popping up as a media meme.

Playing with people’s emotions

That’s all fine — making memes is fun! But what’s been overlooked is why many of the apps we use make us feel this way. And the reason is simple: We design our apps to elicit strong emotions from our users, without ever admitting that’s intentional.

For example, it’s completely ordinary for people who design or build apps to talk about “engagement” or about “earning people’s attention”. Product people regularly talk about creating a sense of urgency for people to check the app, or even discuss ways to explicitly try to generate a sense of missing out if people aren’t using their app.

What they’re talking about in each scenario is explicitly creating a new, false source of stress for a person. Anybody who’s ever struggled with the number of unread messages in their inbox, or who’s been troubled by a little red notification dot on their phone that just won’t go away, knows exactly how effective these efforts can be.

How does it feel?

It took me more than a decade of building software before I realized the first question in building a new feature should usually be, “How is this supposed to make a person feel?” This probably seems obvious to people outside of the tech industry, but for people building technology every day, it’s easy to get distracted by focusing on competitive products, or on what investors want, or on what features will drive certain types of metrics.

All of this is massively amplified by the fact that so many contemporary apps and sites are supported by ads. In a world where advertising is the underpinning of the economic model, anything that attracts attention can be converted into dollars, at least in the short term. And nothing attracts more attention than a false sense of urgency — things that tap into primal emotions like fear or anger or envy. What is FOMO but the combination of fear and envy?

Now, joy is a powerful and meaningful emotion. So is love, or limerence, or delight. That last one, delight, does get discussed a lot by people who build technology. We’re always saying we want to induce delight in our users. But the reality is, products that optimize for being delightful often take longer to monetize than products that capitalize on negative emotions. They often rely on a business model where people actually pay for the product, rather than one where advertisers pay for diverting the attention of people using the product.

So our apps end up playing with people’s emotions out of simple economic necessity.

Tap the heart button

The manipulation of users’ emotions would be a problem on its own, but it’s made worse by a peculiarity of tech industry culture. Even though apps obviously, blatantly affect people’s emotions (how many apps on your phone right now have a button in them with a heart on it?), it’s extremely rare for people building products to directly admit that they have an impact on how people feel.

In many other creative disciplines, eliciting emotion is an explicit goal. For people who make television or print advertising, it’s all they talk about. Same thing for people who design cars — they constantly talk about the emotions they want to evoke.

But while Apple will make ads showing off the sleek lines of their phones in ways that mimic a commercial for a new car, the apps on that phone will seldom admit when their notifications inspire a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Even a giant network like Facebook doesn’t publicly acknowledge that sometimes using their app makes people hate themselves. That seems like a pretty serious software bug.

If we’re going to command more and more of people’s attention, then we have a simple obligation: We need to take responsibility for the way our apps make people feel. When we build something, each of us should be asking our peers and ourselves, “If this works the way I want it to, will this person’s life feel better or worse?”

And as people who use all of these apps, we have to hold creators accountable when the choices they make result in us feeling stressed, or upset, or distracted, or simply left out. These are bugs we can fix.

I’m the cofounder of Makerbase, a community for people who make apps and websites. Join us!