As someone who is nearing a decade since starting to use social media, and having used it extensively in countless use cases from marketing my business ventures to dating, I have grown increasingly wary of how social media hard-wires our brains to follow certain habits. While social media was and can still be hailed for the many opportunities it brings, as anything it comes with its own inherent flaws. And unlike other things that have shades of gray, social media fundamentally challenges the human social interaction.
As Douglas Rushkoff elaborates in his medium article, “Computers were the tools that would upscale humanity. But maybe humanity simply wasn’t developed enough to handle the abilities potentiated by digital technologies distributed so widely and rapidly. At least not the sector of humanity that ended up being responsible for developing this stuff. Many of us knew that digital connectivity could end up overwhelming a society accustomed to privacy, a limited number of social contacts, and news edited by experts from above. We understood that recording everything one said or did into a permanent database would pose moral, legal, and reputational challenges. We even suspected that just the effort to engineer a collective global brain like the internet could challenge our primitive understandings of identity and individuality. We understood we were moving into a world where thinking would no longer be a personal activity but a collective one. Many of us knew the opportunity was bigger than we could handle - it may even have represented a leap forward in human evolution.”
We understood we were moving into a world where thinking would no longer be a personal activity but a collective one.
Yual Noah Harrari in his masterpiece “Sapiens : A Brief History of Humankind” points out: “The spectacular leap to the top of the food chain by Sapiens due the cognitive revolution, had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”
Drawing parallels with the above explanation, as the next digital revolution progresses, it might be too premature to think that Edmond Kirsch’s prediction in Origin that Homo Sapiens will evolve into Technium through obligate endosymbiosis is going to happen. However, the fact that we might not be ready for the internet and the capabilities that comes with it, especially social media, is something to ponder upon. Then again, as the wise captain Jack Sparrow pointed out;
Therefore, if one is able to extract the many benefits of social media without being enslaved, it can be empowering. However, the number of people capable of doing that seems to be very less. From being an avid user of almost all social media platforms, to being an increasingly less user, below is a list of concerns I have had over the past few years.
Disclaimer: The text below is mostly not my own work and most of the content is extracted from other sources, which I have cited inline or hyperlinked. The goal is to curate the content highlighting the reasons I feel important and not to get any financial benefits or claim rights of the work. The images that do not have the creator mentioned in the image are from xkcd.
1. Dopamine infused brownies
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter - a chemical messenger that sends messages between nerve cells (Bygraves 2019). Dopamine is heavily involved in the feelings and drivers of motivation and reward. In an evolutionary context, dopamine rewards us for beneficial behaviors and motivates us to repeat them.
That satisfying feeling when you’ve accomplished something? That’s usually due to dopamine. Tasted the most delicious “kottu”? That’s your dopamine kicking in. Had super-pleasurable sex? Hello dopamine!
You know where I’m going with this….
Social media apps are master exponents of this dopamine-driven reward pattern. Similar to slot machines, many apps implement a reward pattern optimized to keep you engaged as much as possible (Haynes 2018). Variable reward schedules were introduced as a psychological concept in the early 1900s where the unpredictability of the reward coupled with the relatively less cost of checking for the reward habituated humans to keep checking for rewards. In that case, it is worse than a slot machine, as slot machine rewards come at a high cost, the cost being the risk of losing money. Out of this very concept, emerges attention engineering - the art of retaining platform user attention as long as possible in order to maximize advertising revenue and information collection.
attention engineering - the art of retaining platform user attention as long as possible in order to maximize advertising revenue and information collection.
If you’ve been a Facebook user for more than a few years, you’ve probably noticed that the site has been expanding its criteria for notifications. When you first join Facebook, your notification center revolves around the initial set of connections you make, creating that crucial link between notification and social reward. But as you use Facebook more and begin interacting with various groups, events, and artists, that notification center will also become more active. After a while, you’ll be able to open the app at any time and reasonably expect to be rewarded. When paired with the low cost of checking your phone, you have a pretty strong incentive to check in whenever you can (Haynes 2018).
Other examples highlight a more deliberate effort to monopolize your time. Consider Instagram’s implementation of a variable-ratio reward schedule. As explained in this 60 Minutes interview, Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold “likes” on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. So when you make your post, you may be disappointed to find fewer responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on. Your dopamine centers have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond robustly to the sudden influx of social appraisal. This use of a variable reward schedule takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation, and it optimizes the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we’ve become habitual users (Haynes 2018).
As Chamath Palihapitiya, during his View From The Top talk at Harvard, pointed out, as we keep trapped in this reward cycle, we curate our lives against these perceived senses of perfection because we get rewarded with the short term signals, and we conflate that we value and conflate that with the truth. That leaves you even more vacant and empty before you did it because it forces you into this vicious cycle of "what's the next thing I need to do now? because I need it back”. Think about that compounded by 2 billion people and think about how people react to the perception of others.
That’s a shitty place to be unless of course, your actual circumstances are shittier.
2. Highlight reels
When it comes to social media we only post our highlight reels, doing our damndest to make sure everyone thinks our life is perfect and we are above reproach. The problem with this, however, is that this exposure to overidealized lifestyles and exaggerated victories can lead you to develop a skewed sense of self and reality. No one’s life is perfect, but it can be hard to see that when you’re stuck in a constant digital race (Johnson 2019).
In 2015, I was trying wake-boarding for the first time in Nusa Dua - a popular beach in Bali. I had seen videos before. You hang on to a rope, a boat drags you and you just stay upright and wizz on the ocean surface. How hard can it be, right? Well, turns out, it’s incredibly hard. The maximum time I stayed upright was 5 seconds before falling face flat on the water and getting dragged along with the rope because I forgot to let it go. However, a friend who was on the boat, shot a video and I managed to get the perfect frame out of it to show that I was an effing champion at it. Post cool looking sporty pic on Insta. Check!
Back in the days when we had limited exposure to peoples’ lives, we either didn’t know better things existed or, we were contempt with what we had. We were shown what a third party media company (television/newspaper) chose to show us and 24x7 access to people’s lives were unfathomable. Now, you see exotic travel pics, the new cars, villas, the next great promotion in the job every damn day! And then we celebrate them on social media when it happens to us to compound that happiness. The neighbor who got a new car showcasing it around the neighborhood is now amplified by 2 billion people.
Maybe we are not meant to see how the best lives are lived. Maybe we are wired to see how the people in our circles live and not how DiCaprio lives in Hollywood Hills!
3. Either you pay for the product or you are the product
Few years back, the login page of Facebook had the text “Facebook is free and it always will be”, right after the words “Sign Up”. Naturally, if the users are not paying for a product, either it follows a “freemium” model (which is not true for social media) or the users are in fact being consumed. In the case of social media, the product consumes our attention. The advertisers who post advertisements on social media pays the platform owners to get the attention of the users. Going by the definitions, the clients (advertisers) pay the service provider (social media platform) to bring the commodity (user attention) to them. In other words, our attention is in fact what the price is paid for. Better yet, we produce the content that keeps everyone else engaged with the platform! We do that because we are hooked by the ability to post highlight reels and get that dopamine hit.
Going by the definitions, the clients (advertisers) pay the service provider (social media platform) to bring the commodity (user attention) to them.
4. The marshmallow test
Apart from rewiring our brains to have a short attention span, the premature ejaculation of happiness leads to the deterioration of one of the most underrated, yet invaluable human qualities - perseverance.
The Stanford marshmallow experiment (Mischel 1970) was a study on delayed gratification in the 1970s led by a research group at Stanford University. In this study, a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. During this time, the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes and then returned. The reward was either a marshmallow or pretzel stick, depending on the child's preference. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.
While this study gives a small, narrow insight into human behavior, the key takeaway stands true. If you want to succeed at something, at some point, you will need to find the ability to be disciplined and take action instead of becoming distracted and doing what's easy. Success in nearly every field requires you to ignore doing something easier in favor of doing something harder.
the premature ejaculation of happiness leads to the deterioration of one of the most underrated, yet invaluable human qualities - perseverance.
Now imagine a situation where you allow your kid/teenager to eat one marshmallow after the other without even telling them that there is yummier food out there. Anyone that deliberately abstains from the short-term, fake dopamine hits and practices perseverance will naturally have a higher chance of achieving feats that “matter”.
5. Algorithms that feed your biases
The most important or I might even say the most scary advantage the social media platforms (and also, search engines) have is to capture what we are thinking and what interests us. When you type something on Google, you are basically sending your thoughts related to your current state of mind to a third party. When you scroll through the news feed, social media platforms can track your engagement (likes/comments/shares), the videos you watch - whether you watch something completely/whether you just glanced at it, and even the speed of your scrolling to figure out what content interests you. If that is not enough, your eye movement can be tracked to infer what interests you most (Bleicher 2013). These capabilities coupled with advanced AI techniques open up unprecedented possibilities to predict our behavior and even influence them.
“The Great Hack” offers a background story about the “Cambridge Analytica” scandal. While the Cambridge Analytica incident is a scary prospect, what is scarier is that it is just one use case of how human behavior can be influenced by social media. Newspapers and televisions had no way of knowing how each reader acted to the news item. However, now social media has the ability to see what interests us and show us exactly that to keep us hooked. Then we surround ourselves with our own information bubble. If the ads can be customized to fit our interests, why not the other content? Imagine a person that has a slight belief in some ideology. Based on his/her interest in content, the algorithmically curated media can show him/her more content that validates and enhances his/her beliefs.
- Bygraves, M 2019, Dopamine, The Brain And Your Sex Drive, viewed 22 July 2020, https://blog.peak.net/2019/09/12/dopamine-brain-sex-drive/
- Haynes, T 2018, Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time, viewed 22 July 2020, http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/
- Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B. (1970). "Attention In Delay Of Gratification". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329–337. doi:10.1037/h0029815. ISSN 0022-3514.
- Bleicher, A 2013, Eye-Tracking Software Goes Mobile, viewed 27 July 2020, http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/
- Johnson, E.B. 2019, How social media is actually making you feel more alone, viewed 22 July 2020, https://medium.com/lady-vivra/social-media-addiction-and-loneliness-8932d5d1585e