In today's world, the most scarce quality is attention. Advertising companies have fought for decades to capture peoples' attention and convince them that various useless products are crucial for existence. With the information explosion following the advent of the internet, capturing and retaining attention became more crucial. The Nobel prize winning economist Herbert Simon said that ‘a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention’.
Social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. They deceive their users by manipulating their attention and directing it towards their own commercial purposes. They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. The business model of social media companies is based on advertising. Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all internet advertising revenue. The more time users spend on the platform, the more valuable they become to the companies.
The attention merchants of Silicon Valley earn billions of dollars a year from our data. By posting, searching and liking, we perform the free labor that powers one of the most profitable sectors of the economy. The ethicist James Williams said, “Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.” Technology is persuading millions of people in ways they don’t see. It steers what 2 billion people are thinking and believing every day. Big platforms like Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram etc. suck us into their products and take time that we may later wish we had not wasted.
Systems are getting better and better at steering what people are paying attention to and what people do with their time than ever before. We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves. When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. Many defend their right to make “free” choices but ignore how those choices are manipulated upstream by menus we didn’t choose in the first place. Tech companies give people the illusion of free choice while designing the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose.
Technology can undermine the autonomy of consumers or users because addiction is built into the apps. For example, many games and online platforms are designed to make users want to come back for more. In order to get the next round of funding or to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up and then that attention is sold to advertisers. Many designers are thus under pressure to create addictive app features that engage you and suck as much time out of your life as possible. In Antisocial Media, Siva Vaidyanathan writes:
Google and to a lesser extent Facebook help us manage the torrent of information around us by doing the work of deciding whats valuable or interesting to us. . . Google and Facebook have cornered the market on [capturing attention].
Monetizing our captured attention pays for the labor and technology that enable Google and Facebook to filter the flood of information so effectively. And while those two companies are far from the the only players in the attention economy, they are the best at it.
A cartoon character said, 'We have seen the enemy and it is us.' Captology is the study of computers as persuasive technologies. There is a Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University that studies various techniques to automate persuasion. (Captology is derived from an acronym: Computers As Persuasive Technologies.) This includes the design, research, ethics and analysis of interactive computing products (computers, mobile phones, websites, wireless technologies, mobile applications, video games, etc.) created for the purpose of changing people’s attitudes or behaviors. Every day more computing products, including websites and mobile apps, are designed to change what people think and do. People have been fed the propaganda for decades that they make their own choices so it is easy to manipulate them because they won’t think that their feelings are being produced and manipulated by some external system.
In Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products, Nir Eyal discusses his Hook Model. The Hook is a habit forming product design (a habit being an activity done with little or no conscious thought). The Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hooks happen every time you interact with the product. Frequent engagement with a service over a short period of time increases the likelihood of a person sticking to that behavior. The 4 steps of the hook are trigger, action, reward, and investment.
- Trigger – These can be external triggers like push notifications, or internal ones that are informed through an association or memory in our minds. The most frequent internal triggers are negative emotions. For example, depressed people check their email more.
- Action – This is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. The ease of performing an action increases the chance that it happens. Make the trigger visible and extremely easy to use. Every time the user has to think, they’re taking on cognitive load. The rule around forming habits is to reduce cognitive load to make doing easier than thinking.
- Reward – Rewards reinforce the motivation for performing an action and increase the likelihood of that action being repeated. Predictable rewards don't create desire. Variability in a reward really gets us hooked. A part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens becomes active when we crave something. It becomes most active in anticipation of a reward and less active when we get the reward.
- Investment – It occurs when the user puts something into the product or service such as time, data, effort, social capital or money. Inviting friends, stating preferences, building virtual assets, etc are all investments. They increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook.
What’s interesting is that while all physical products depreciate, habit forming technology appreciates! For example, the more content you have on Google Drive or the more followers you have on Twitter, the less likely you’ll be to leave those services. That’s often true even if a better competing service comes along. Over time, the number of people who remember life before the internet will be fewer and fewer, and eventually, no one will know what life was like without constant access to the internet and social media.
Having a quiet dinner with one's family with associated chit chat or going out to play with friends will become rarer. There will be less face to face interactions among people. (Even before the virus pandemic, neighbours were meeting more often on Whatsapp.) No one will remember what it was like to eat dinner without taking a picture of it and posting it on Facebook. Used to the creep of technology into our lives, this comes to seem completely normal. All of this “disruption” is driven by technologies purposely designed to be addictive.
Max Frisch once once remarked that “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” An early investor in Facebook, Sean Parker said he has become a “conscientious objector” to social media, and that Facebook and others had succeeded by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” A former product manager at the company, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, has said Facebook lies about its ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them. The games developer Ian Bogost has said these addictive technologies are the 'cigarette of this century'.
Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Taking a swipe at the wider online ecosystem, he said, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth".