Scroll. Refresh. Repeat.
Scroll. Refresh. Repeat. These three words have come to define a generation — our generation. Social media has piggybacked on the explosion of the internet and the widespread use of smartphones to reach unprecedented levels of popularity.
Global statistics show that there are over 3.2 billion active social media users. Facebook alone, the world’s largest social media network, has over 2.32 billion monthly active users, a number that accounts for nearly 30 percent of the worldwide population.
It’s easy to see the allure of these platforms and why people sign up for them in the first place. They seemingly fulfill a fundamental part of our social needs as human beings. Facebook, for instance, provides us with an easy and convenient way to keep in touch with the people we care about (and those we absolutely don’t).
But when the question shifts to why people stay and spend so much time on these platforms, that’s when things take a turn for the interesting. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and just about every other social media platform there is have become, in the words of techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier, behavioral modification empires. And they do this by capitalizing on a vulnerability in human psychology we all share.
Aristotle famously said, “Man is by nature a social animal.” Social concerns are not aspects of the human brain that were brought about by social media; they are primal features deeply ingrained in our evolutionary past. The survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestor depended greatly on his social standing with other members of his tribe. If he didn’t manage this social aspect well, he could very well find himself at the wrong end of a spear.
We’re far removed from our hunter-gatherer days, but this social drive, honed over millions of years of evolution, remains a central part of what makes us human. To quote social psychologist Adam Alter, “We’re social beings who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us.”
But like many things, this social drive can be a double-edged sword. And social media platforms understand this. By cleverly crafting features and services meant to exploit our psychological tendencies, they’ve been able to monetize our time and attention to the tune of billions of dollars.
At the heart of what makes all this exploitation possible is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Discovered in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden, dopamine, or otherwise known as the feel-good hormone, plays a role in pleasure and is central to the mechanism of behavior change in response to getting rewards.
Drug addicts are not necessarily addicted to the drug itself, but rather to the dopamine high that results from taking them. When that high eventually subsides, your brain begins to seek and crave for it again. And this is basically how addictions form. You become trapped in this vicious cycle as you repeatedly chase that dopamine high.
By the same token, little cues here and there on social media platforms — a like here or a retweet there — ensure that you’re constantly fed with these little dopamine hits that form the foundation of what makes these services so addicting. By doing this, these companies make sure you stay addicted and spend more and more time on their platforms.
Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, put it best at an Axios event in 2017: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them… was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.”
The dopamine hits Parker talks about are further reinforced by a precept in psychology: intermittent positive reinforcement, a fancy-sounding phrase that basically means “delivering rewards in an unpredictable manner.”
Unpredictability in the transmission of rewards have been found to release more dopamine, a psychological fact integrated into the services and features of social media. Every time you post a photo, tweet out something or refresh your feed, you’re making a gamble of sorts, because you don’t really know what the response or reward is going to be. You don’t know how many likes your latest selfie is going to get; you don’t know how many retweets your latest tweet is going to fetch; and you don’t know if you’re going to get the latest viral post or another photo posted by your crush the next time you refresh your feed. The unpredictability of it all, as the psychology of intermittent positive reinforcement teaches us, makes it all the more addicting.
Social media usage statistics reveal the user’s general unawareness of what these services are doing to them and their brains. And a major reason for this is because these technologies have done a great job of lulling us into believing that there are no downsides to using their services and that by using them, we are somehow only fulfilling some of our deepest social needs as humans.
Facebook’s mission statement is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Given how much it has changed our society and the relationships we have with each other, it’s easy to see how it’s doing the exact opposite.
Social media services have been tuned to give you a constant stream of information about how much (or how little) people are thinking about you at any given moment. The rich and complex offline social interactions we’ve evolved to crave have been replaced by a set of low-value social approval indicators — likes, hearts, retweets — that hijack our brains and dominate our time and attention. Social media, ironically, has made us less human.
On May 12, 2017, Bill Maher ended his HBO show “Real Time” with a monologue that perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with social media: “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”
To borrow a page from Maher’s book, Marlboro only wanted your lungs; Facebook wants your soul.
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Philip Go, 23, is a computer engineer.
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