There’s a two step process that runs through all of our brains: search and secure. Over the past few decades, researchers in psychology and neuroscience departments around the world have been learning about how neurochemicals–small natural chemicals like dopamine and serotonin–are the driving forces behind human behavior.
Further research, especially since 2000 as new tools and higher resolution scans became cheaper and more widely available, has shown surprising results. Addiction, for example, is in part due to an imbalance of these neurochemicals, notably dopamine. Dopamine is known nowadays not as “liking” but rather “seeking“, which is what we do when shopping online, scrolling through Instagram feeds, reaching for another cigarette, flipping over stones looking for starfish, hunting, etc.
This process is broken by social media. Commonly referred to as “dopamine addiction”, erroneous feedback loops caused by social media (and a lot of other internet activity) is what I will talk about here.
Why Seeking Is Important
We are generally driven seek instead of be satisfied. Finding more food sources is more important evolutionarily than laying around after a nice meal. It’s why at a buffet we go back for more, looking through all the options. It’s why most people can’t overeat when eating just one monotonously-flavored food like 30 bananas. Never-ending searching and seeking is actually one of the key processes behind internet and gaming addiction. It’s a naturally occurring loop that was exploited to hook users to various digital products.
Take a look at your own internet/device usage. Try to identify the time you spend seeking and searching instead of being satisfied with what is on screen. It’s a common complaint that users of Reddit and TikTok that information found on these platforms is useful, but infrequent.
The density of good information is so supremely low online compared to an information-dense resource like a book or lecture. Getting a 30 second videoclip about some topic after scrolling through 3 minutes of useless fluff is exactly how these platforms are designed to get users to compulsively check their devices.
But it’s not just every three minutes. Good and valuable content is spread randomly throughout social media platforms. Scientist and American psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered decades ago that something known as a variable reward rate was more effective than scheduling rewards constantly. In practice, instead of giving the user content they want on a fixed interval (every 5 swipes), randomly showing them relevant content changes user behavior and increases usage. Unpredictable rewards are actively used by all platforms, intentionally or not, to keep users engaged.
So, maybe you see three elements of content you are interested in a row, then a few minutes of nothing, then one good thing, then a grueling 10 minutes. Right before you put your phone down (designers know when you will), you will be shown the exact thing you want to see. Then, you keep scrolling, seeking out more rewarding content. TikTok is so successful because they have a very good algorithm able to determine what the user perceives as valuable. They are then able to show it at critical points.
Follow The Money
Why, exactly, do social media and other internet-based companies want users to be so loyal to their apps? Why do they hide relevant data? Shouldn’t the app designers help give you exactly what you want? Not necessarily.
The answer lies in their financials. These companies exist with a goal to generate a profit and value for shareholders. Valuation is calculated for these companies in-part by calculating Monthly Active Users (how many people use your app/website per month) and daily active users. These companies–when they aren’t collecting user data–are selling ads. As you seek for more rewarding content, they drop ads into your feed. These ads are not just any ads, however. They are targeted based on what you are seeking out. This is called targeted advertising, and it’s a big reason why the technology companies are so valuable.
If you have never seen advertising portals before, please take a look. Click through the advertising websites below to see how your attention is marketed towards companies. Pick your favorite site, I’ve included the major ones.
- Reddit: https://ads.reddit.com
- Snapchat: https://forbusiness.snapchat.com
- Twitter: https://business.twitter.com/en/campaign/welcome-to-twitter-ads.html
- Google: https://ads.google.com/home/#!/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/business/ads
- TikTok: https://ads.tiktok.com/
- Instagram: https://business.instagram.com/advertising
- LinkedIn: https://business.linkedin.com/marketing-solutions/ads
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/ads/
- Amazon: https://advertising.amazon.com
The portion of revenue that comes from advertising is humongous for these companies. In 2020, 97.9% of Facebook’s global revenue was from advertising. Google made 92% of it’s revenue from advertisements. One of the key takeaways from Twitter’s valuation recently was average monetizable daily active users. The only business thing that matters for Twitter, and don’t forget they most certainly are a business, is “how many people can we make money off of per day”, where they drive 89% of their revenue from advertising.
There is a clear financial incentive to use every (legal) means necessary to get users hooked onto these devices, trick users into believing they are valuable resources, and then convincing users to use them as much as possible. Facebook is so powerful because they’ve mastered the art of manipulating users into seeking for long times. Companies realized that including posts and data from family and friends makes you likely to seek for information longer. Nobody would use Instagram if none of the content was from those in your social sphere. And while you seek, they place advertisements that are targeted at what you are seeking for.
You Versus Ten Thousand Engineers
It’s not public how many engineers these companies have, but estimates have somewhere between 5,000 to 200,000 engineers per each of these large companies listed above. When you open any of these high-value apps, you are dropped into a world designed and controlled by thousands of engineers who carefully monitor your behavior on dozens of dashboards worldwide. It’s not like they have the time to check in on each user, so data is aggregated, but nonetheless as much as our Instagram feeds differ, our behavior is the exact same.
This is why I deleted almost every app, including Safari, from my iPhone. I know that I stand no chance against an entire company of engineers and designers. I just recently switched to a print news subscription as a result as well.
Our world is a crazy one, thats for sure. Remember, the first iPhone ever is only 15 years old! All of this social media stuff is brand new, with Instagram born in 2010, and TikTok born in 2018. TikTok is only 4 years old, and look at the effect it has had on the world. Incredible.
I’ve been trying consistently for the past few months to make a sizable dent in my screen time and social media usage, most recently deleting my Instagram account. I was wasting 80 days per year on my devices, and I took them back. There are tons of good resources out there on how to cut down on screen usage, and I recommend you check them out.
Not everyone has a problem with their screen time, but anything over 2 hours a day is a lot. At two hours each day, you are losing 45 days per year, or roughly 3.5 days per month on screens (excluding 8 hours of sleep per day). If you are concerned with your screen usage, or otherwise think that it’s no big deal: go one week without social media. If that seems a bit much, try going three days. Let me know in the comments how this experiment works out for you.