“User Engagement” Is Code for “Addiction”
There is something about social media that human beings are not psychologically prepared for. It is a perverse and unnatural abstraction of human social community to which our brain does not react well. As a facsimile of genuine humanity, it plunges into something resembling The Uncanny Valley for social interactions. It might be, for all we know, that the primary reason someone posts on social media is anger. If a proper study was done, I bet it would show exactly that.
Quarantines and lock downs forced people indoors and onto social media. That means that everyone’s own emotions became the most important thing in their world. Suddenly, everyone is in the daily habit of an unhealthy and irrational solipsism. Not because we wanted to be, or would be under other circumstances, but because we are all being conditioned to be introverted and consumption-obsessed egomaniacs.
I believe that human beings, on some fundamental level as social creatures, need to have trusting face-to-face community with others. Forcing people indoors and abstracting their social interactions, forcing human contact into a communication channel that is both easily monetized and easily monitored, it harms our brains in a way that we don’t yet fully understand, in addition to giving untold amounts of power to private tech companies.
When Facebook says they want to “make the world more open and connected,” they mean they want to become the middle-man for all interpersonal interaction.
When looking back at this era of humanity future humans will say, “How could they have just scrolled and scrolled all day? Didn’t they know what it was doing to them?” Social media is the new cigarettes. Everyone does it, it’s addictive, it’s harmful, and you should quit.
The strangest part is that, while social media is extremely habit-forming, it also seems to consist of mostly negativity. Webcomic Name accurately called it “an endless stream of the most horrible things in the world”. That means that it adversely affects our mental health in ways we don’t fully understand yet.
As a UI developer by trade, I can pinpoint precisely the Dark Triad of Web UI Design Choices that addict people to social media and drive us all slowly crazy (by design!):
- Relative timestamps (“3 hours ago” instead of “6:56 PM”). This creates IMMEDIACY.
- Infinite scrolling with no “more” button or link. This creates PERPETUATION.
- Fake internet points (clickable, often animated icons with incrementing numbers. Likes, reactions, upvotes, retweets, etc.). This creates ADDICTION.
Relative timestamps make everything feel immediate and time-sensitive. This is necessary for social media companies because otherwise these textual interactions can feel asynchronous. That’s the perk of email; You can respond whenever you want. Without relative time stamps, social media would feel just a bit more like an old-style internet forum or BBS, and less like an instant messaging service. This minuscule feature change has a massive impact: it subconsciously increases FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), which encourages longer and more frequent use patterns at the direct mental expense of the user.
Infinite scrolling is also problematic because it makes users stick around longer. If the app allows for scrolling down forever and never stops or interrupts, this means that any user can now scroll compulsively, half paying attention, without being interrupted, indefinitely. The result is that users unthinkingly keep themselves glued to their forever-feeds for a much longer period of time, which increases profit for the company running the app. Again, this is all subconscious. The user has no idea that they are being drawn in to addictive use patterns to improve the profits of Big Tech.
Most alarming is the “internet points”. On Reddit, this is called Karma. On Twitter, it’s likes and retweets. Ostensibly, this simple numeric score displays the community’s overall attitude toward a given piece of content. On its face, this appears to be a radically democratic concept; Everyone can vote! The reality is very different. Reddit, for example, has always obfuscated the true Karma score (“to prevent vote brigading”), and the position of a piece of content within the feed can be purposely decided by the Reddit home office, not by the community. This is incredibly, deeply sinister.
The most addictive part of social media is the chemical addiction. When you can click an animated icon to show your appreciation for or reaction to a piece of content, it gives you a shot of dopamine. It adds value to the interaction, and it makes the user feel empowered. Likewise, if you get a lot of reactions to your content, you get rewarded by your own brain. This leads to, quite literally, a chemically addictive component to social media.
Reddit has created an app that supports a community such that it appears to be democratic in its general functioning, but is actually very specifically curated toward a preferred set of political and social ends. It fosters a feeling of being an outsider in anyone who dares to disagree with what “everyone” purportedly already believes. This makes it incredibly easy to fall into irrational rage fits over “the other,” or what one imagines them to be, and to allow one’s political and social views to slip ever more deeply toward extremism, destructiveness, and the worst of the mob mentality. “Everyone already believes X,” the user says to herself, “why in the world don’t I? What’s wrong with me?” And thus, the user is gaslit out of her own principles, and conditioned to follow the herd without question. Who doesn’t want to fit in and be seen as “normal”?
Reddit has only developed into this Great Beast With Seven Heads And Ten Horns fairly recently. Facebook has actually been doing this exact psychological manipulation tactic for years. They tell you that your friends all think a certain way already, and that leads you to believe that you are the odd one out for having your own opinions. They even infamously tell users on occasion that their friends are “liking” the Facebook pages of big-name sponsors. Some users noticed this when they saw that their deceased relatives had “liked” an advertisement’s Facebook page. How much more evil can you get?
Facebook invented the monetization of peer-pressure. Everyone else just followed suit.
At the risk of sounding like the massive nerd that I absolutely am, this reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Commander Riker happens upon a “game” which is actually an extremely efficient dopamine delivery device. Basically, placing this device on your head (image to the left) makes you feel like you’re getting a shot of straight dopamine, or morphine, or some pleasurable brain-drug, and it’s incredibly addictive. So addictive that it causes problems across the whole crew. To me, that’s the episode that tried to warn us about social media. We should have listened.
The great specter haunting the twenty-first century will not be any sort of -ism. It will be the great beast of global technocracy, and Big Brother will not be a government. To the contrary, the Ministries of Truth, Peace, Love, and Plenty will all be private (or publicly traded) entities. In this way, no Constitution, or Magna Carta, or any other foundational document designed to keep government tyranny at bay will be able to operate as intended. It won’t be “the government” depriving us of our rights. It will be private companies with their own verbose and opaquely worded Terms of Service, and wide-ranging End User License Agreements. Right now, we can get by without Twitter or Reddit or Facebook if we really have to (and many of us do quite happily). Soon, you will not be able to opt out of the technocratic dictatorship that we are all to be subject to.
Welcome to the Machine.