Internet communication has gone from emails, messaging boards, and chatrooms, to sophisticated, all-pervasive networking. Social media companies build addictiveness into their products. The longer you spend on their sites and apps, the more data they generate. The more data, the more accurately they anticipate what you’ll do next and for how long. The better their predictions, the more money they make by selling your attention to advertisers.
Depressed and insecure about their value as human beings, the younger generations grow up knowing only digital imprisonment. Older users are trapped in polarised bubbles of political hate. As usual, the rich and powerful are the beneficiaries.
Masters of Manipulation
Humans are social animals. But big business wants us isolated, distracted, and susceptible to marketing. Using techniques based on classical conditioning, social media programmers bridge the gap between corporate profits and our need to communicate by keeping us simultaneously isolated and networked.
The Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), pioneered research into conditioned reflexes, arguing that behaviour is rooted in the environment. His work was followed by the Americans John B. Watson (1878–1958) and B.F. Skinner (1904–90). Their often cruel conditioning experiments, conducted on animals and infants, laid the basis for gambling and advertising design. As early as the 1900s, slot machines were designed to make noises, like bell sounds, to elicit conditioned responses to keep the gambler fixed on the machine: just as Pavlov used a bell to condition his dogs to salivate. By the 1980s, slot machines had incorporated electronics to advantage particular symbols whilst giving the gambler the impression that they are near victory. “Stop buttons” gave the gambler the illusion of control. Sandy Parakilas, former Platform Operations Manager at Facebook, says: “Social media is very similar to a slot machine.”
Psychologist Watson’s experiments “set into motion industry-wide change” in TV, radio, billboard, and print advertising “that continued to develop until the present,” says historian Abby Bartholomew. Topics included emotional arousal in audiences (e.g., sexy actress → buy the product), brand loyalty (e.g., Disney is your family), and motivational studies (e.g., buy the product → look as good as this guy).
Many of these techniques involve stimulating so-called “feel good” chemicals like dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. These are released when eating, exercising, having sex, and engaging in positive social interactions. Software designers learned that their release can be triggered by simple and unexpected things, like getting an email, being “friended,” seeing a retweet, and getting a like. The billionaire co-founder of Facebook and Napster, Sean Parker, said that the aim is to “give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post.” But Parker also said of his company: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Facebook’s former Vice President of User Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, doesn’t allow his children to use Facebook and says “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric.” Tim Cook, the CEO of the world’s first trillion-dollar company Apple, on whose iPhones the addictions mainly occur, bluntly said of his young relatives: “I don’t want them on a social network.”