Revealed: the Addiction Tricks of Social Media

From the Headmaster's Desk, January 8, 2018

I have a bit of a confession this morning.  I love Facebook.  And I have for almost 15 years.

This is partly because I lived through its inception.  I remember arriving at university as an undergraduate and receiving a copy of the ‘Freshman Facebook’.  This was a yearbook that had a photograph, along with a brief biography, of everyone in our year group who was starting as an undergraduate.  We sat around in our dorm room and we looked through the book:  who had we met?  Who did we want to meet?  We wrote comments in ink next to photographs.

Eventually, we forgot about the ‘Freshman Facebook’ and got on with our lives and university.  A couple of years later at the boat house, two of the other rowers, twins as it happened, were talking about putting the ‘Freshman Facebook’ on the internet.  I remember laughing about the idea – we loved the ‘Freshman Facebook’ in our first few weeks, but surely no one would actually want that online?  Apparently Harvard University agreed: they had no interest in putting it online.  The two rowers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, decided to do it anyway.  I thought it was risky and forgot about it.

A couple of years later, facebook.com was launched.  The original version was open only to people with a Harvard email address.  I was in the wave of people who first joined – in fact, 1200 Harvard students signed up in the first 24 hours.  Eventually, of course, it spread to other US universities and, by September 2006, the restriction of allowing only students to sign up was lifted; anyone with an email address could register.

So I like Facebook.  I was there from the beginning. Yet, in recent months, I’ve read some worrying articles that raise concerns about what the company has become over the past 15 years.  And the worrying thing is that these concerns have been revealed by people who worked at Facebook, and are now avoiding the platform, and offering warnings to users.

Justin Rosenstein is one example of a Facebook worker who is now an outspoken critic of his former employer, and other online media platforms.  Despite his current scepticism, Justin has an important place in history: he is the software engineer who created the Like button on Facebook, which was introduced in 2009.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Rosenstein notes that social media platforms actively work to make their users addicted, because more use means more advertising, and that means more money.  The Like feature was incredibly successful in this area.  Engagement soared as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from receiving or giving social affirmation, which led them to upload more content.

Facebook gathers significant data about each user as every swipe, Like and click is documented, making Facebook even better placed to keep you hooked: they target each user with customised content that they will like.  And Facebook is making more money than ever: last year they made more than £10 on every user in the UK.

Twitter and Instagram similarly use Like buttons in order to gather data on users, which again makes them more attractive to advertisers.  The Like feature seems harmless, but it is an addictive loop that is highly profitable for these businesses.

There are conferences and books in Silicon Valley about how to build habit-forming products: there is even a ‘Persuasive Tech Lab’ at Stanford where undergraduates learn tricks to keep users online.  They aim to create a pull for you to visit YouTube, Facebook or Twitter for a few minutes, and then find yourself still there an hour later.  That is their very intention; the websites are designed to suck you in.

In the same way Likes or Shares keep you engaged and involved on some platforms, the Autoshare feature on YouTube and the AutoPlay feature on Netflix are designed to keep you watching:  you don’t even have to touch anything, and you’re stuck in your seat for another video.  And again they customise content to make it harder for you to resist the next video.  Even Facebook now autoplays videos in newsfeeds to keep your attention.

Snapchat’s most successful method of addicting users is the Snapstreaks feature, encouraging users never to miss a day communicating with other users.  If you’re involved in a Snapstreak, be aware that it is not your relationship or you that is winning, but the company has successfully played with your mind, and made you an addict.  The Snapstreak keeps you on their platform, every day, and then they make more money off of you as a user.  Rosenstein compares Snapchat to heroin – the most addictive and dangerous of all drugs.

The algorithms at these companies are so sophisticated that they now know what time of day you are likely to feel vulnerable, lonely, bored or insecure.  As they track your behaviour, they carefully manipulate when they reveal your Likes to you, or the type of content you receive in your feed, and do so at a time when you derive the most satisfaction from it.   With every move, they are making you more addicted to their app.

Yet there is more.  Initially, notification icons on Facebook were blue, but they discovered that red was much more effective.  Red is a colour that commands your brain’s attention; it is a trigger colour and causes alarm, immediately seducing you to open the app and read the message.  Blackberries have a red flashing light when you get a message.  Apps, such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram and others, all use a red alert when you have a notification.

The red notification plays on the same psychology mechanism that makes gambling so addictive: variable rewards.  When you tap on the red notification, you don’t know what email there will be, or how many Likes will be revealed, or how good the photo is, even though it is often something disappointing.  Yet the possibility of a great reward, or great anti-climax, is what builds suspense and makes it so addictive.

Yet there is more:  the ‘pull-to-refresh’ mechanism is also designed to keep you hooked; you will know this well as iPhones use it for email, and most social media feeds use it too.  This is when you swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears.  Each swipe is like gambling at a slot machine: you just don’t know what’s coming next.  Sometimes it is the most beautiful photo of your friend’s puppy.  Sometimes it is an advertisement.

Technology has now far surpassed this mechanism as feeds can be updated instantly.  But social media platforms continue to use it because it is so addictive.  The inventor of this mechanism, again rather wealthy as he sold the mechanism to Twitter, now monitors his own smartphone use closely.  He has turned off all push notifications, and restricts his messaging app to only his wife and close friends.  He is trying to get himself off Twitter, where he admits he is just reading stupid news he already knows.  He charges his phone in his kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it again until the morning.

He acknowledges that smartphones are useful, but he admits his creation, ‘pull-to-refresh’, is addictive, just like other social media tricks.

Rosenstein and others, who are incredibly wealthy from working in technology, often ban their own children from having devices.  Some of them have routers in their homes that cut off internet access at certain times of day.  They don’t take their phones into the bedroom because they know that phones are designed to keep users up at night:  you may be suffering from sleep deprivation, but the apps are making money from your addiction to your phone.  In fact, the CEO of Netflix recently said in public that the company has three main rivals:  Facebook, YouTube and sleep.

Ultimately, your phone and its apps are playing with your mind and making you addicted.  Programmers are using Likes, Snapstreaks, AutoPlay and AutoShare, red notification alerts, and the ‘pull-to-refresh’ mechanism, and I have hardly even mentioned push notifications.  These tools play the same psychological tricks that make humans susceptible to gambling and drug additions.  Every buzz and ping on your phone releases chemicals in your brain, which give you pleasure, making you curious and excited about the next beep or bling.  As one Apple engineer says, ‘It’s not inherently evil to bring people back to your product, it is capitalism.’

And there’s the rub.  The critics of Facebook and Google now say that the companies’ supposedly lofty aims of bringing people together or easing the access to knowledge are really just marketing ploys that try to make them seem innocent or even noble, as if they are making the world a better place.  In reality, these are highly successful capitalistic companies that are trying to make you more addicted, so that they can make more money by advertising.  A former president of Facebook explained that, internally, there is a clear objective at the company:  ‘How do we consume as much user time and conscious attention as possible?’

Now, I’m not expecting any of you throw away your phones or delete every app I’ve mentioned.  But just be aware that these companies are all highly profitable because they are highly effective at making you addicted.  They have invested enormous sums of money in mechanisms that will keep you swiping and tapping and watching, on average more than 2000 times a day, and the more you touch your phone, the more money they make.  They are trying to turn your conversations into streaks, they are trying to make you fear missing out on anything on their page, and they are certainly trying to keep you up at night.

These companies are not neutral, and they do not exist to benefit you.  All of us, as human beings, are vulnerable to persuasion.  Social media threatens our independence, agency and autonomy – by this I mean the control that we have of our everyday life.

At the end of the day, all that we have in life is our time and our attention.  So step back and think about it:  what is time well spent?  Is it in front of a screen, or is it actually enjoying relationships, outdoors, or the real world?

How much of your life, likes and independence will you give to these companies?  It’s a question we all need to consider.

I do think that knowledge is power, and with this knowledge, perhaps you will be better placed to control your own time and attention, and make the most of today, this week, this term and beyond.

Have a very good week, and when you do pick up your phone, be careful you do not let your apps make too much money off of you.

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