The Addictive Power of Social Media

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Recently I have been worried about this constant feedback loop generated by social media, and when I say social media, I am mostly thinking of Facebook. It’s one of the big “four” (Amazon, Apple and Google make up the rest) and recently it seems to be losing its footing when it comes to weeding out the nonsense from the real stuff. Trolls, bots and click-farms are a concern when democracies are at stake, don’t you think?

I have been active on social media for years and I do realize that there are some benefits of being connected to family and friends, being more aware of happenings around the world, and browsing through aesthetically composed pictures (here’s looking at you, Insta).

This New Year, while I was contemplating the hours I spend on Facebook, I found out that “On Jan. 1, Germany began enforcing strict rules that could fine major internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube up to 50 million euros ($60 million, £44 million, AU$77 million) if they don’t remove posts containing hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a complaint” – CNET.

It’s a step in the right direction. People are far meaner online, thanks to the anonymity factor, than when they are debating face-to-face. And it’s as damaging as all the fake “likes” and “loves” one garners after posting a photo on Facebook.

Speaking of which, I recently read Justin Rosenstein’s interview on the Guardian where he says that “he was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook likes, which he describes as bright dings of pseudo-pleasure that can be as hollow as they are seductive.”

And who is this Rosenstein guy you ask. Well, he is the Facebook engineer who created the ubiquitous “like” button. A button which needs no introduction, and has recently been supplemented with the love, angry, wow, and sad “reaction” buttons.

Buttons are the easiest, they require no effort, no typing, and yet they send across these little packets of affirmation which provide a short-term feeling of happiness. Kind of like a dopamine infusion. And I may go as far as to say – not so different from cocaine.

While we reveled in the “bright pings of pseudo-pleasure” derived from sending and receiving likes, Facebook found itself swimming in a sea of valuable data. So they mined it with care and sold it to advertisers.

It also tweaked the activity-alert/notification color from dull blue to trigger-happy red so as to drive maximum engagement. The pull-down-to-refresh feature you see on these sites and their apps, well, they are not so different from the pull-down levers of slot machines. The advertising professional in me loves all these little modifications, and that’s why I got hooked into the psychology behind the social media phenomenon.

According to the same Guardian interview, Loren Brichter, the designer who created the pull-down-to-refresh mechanism, says he never intended the design to be addictive – but would not dispute the slot machine comparison. “I agree 100%,” he says. “I have two kids now and I regret every minute that I’m not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.”

When we share pictures of our food, homes, vacations, kids, friends and family, I guess we are trying to project a controlled image of ourselves to people we don’t get to meet on a daily basis? And there’s nothing wrong in doing that. It’s all good till it gets addictive. Till these likes and reactions and comments take over so much that we lose sight of the good from the bad. Till we start sharing every single thing that happens to us. And till we almost plan things around a Facebook post.

There are people whose “feedback loop” has gotten so out of hand that they are posting pictures on a daily basis. The give and receive likes and post saccharine comments almost instantaneously. No matter how blurry the shot or how awful the picture, they have to adorn it with a suitable adjective in the comments section.

But I am not worried about them. My concern lies with the next generation who will not know a world before Facebook. Will they miss out on hanging out with friends in real time and find it difficult to forge real connections? Will they miss out on real-time fun? Every single shared joke will be online, and worst, forever. There are things I have said and done in my teens that I don’t want to be stored in a chip for eternity. And neither do you.

During a talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business, former Facebook VP for User Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya said that the “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

Later, of course, he went on to apologize for his hard stance on social media, especially to and on Facebook, which led him to release a more balanced statement weighing the good vs the bad. And I agree, it’s not all bad. None of this is part of a mega evil plan laid out by a mega villain rubbing their hands in glee as we tap likes and loves.

Social media sites are not driving us insane on purpose, and they do a lot of good in the world in many ways hitherto unknown to us. And I am sure that they can become a force for the greater good, if only we knew how to use them better.

Maybe the next generation, the one I worry about, will do just that.

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