Mental Health and Social Media Part 3 : In which I learn that Social Media Platforms are Designed to be Addictive!

This is the 3rd and final part of my triple-threat post on Mental Health and Social Media. *Phew* You can find the previous part here. With no introduction I’ll jump right in!

To cap off all my (maybe neurotic haha) investigation, I looked into the design aspects of social media itself. This was inspired by articles and talks I had found online discussing how social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Etc. use carefully chosen designs in a conscious effort to keep their users on their platform. As a matter of fact several people even claimed that tech giants such as Google or Facebook have dedicated teams, sometimes known as “growth hackers”, whose mission is to dream up new ways of capturing our attention.

Here’s a short list of some former “growth hackers” who are recently coming out against social media:

[Chamath] Palihapitiya was vice president of growth at Facebook from 2007 to 2011, where he helped the company add 650 million users. But he doesn’t use the platform today, and credits social media for many social ills. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” he says. “It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other. I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore.”

Source: “Chamath Palihapitiya: Why Failing Fast Fails” by Stanford Graduate School of Business

“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions that have unintended, negative consequences”-

Justin Rosenstein, creator of the ‘like’ button

Source: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”  by The Guardian

“How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day” by Tristan Harris, former  design ethicist and product philosopher at Google

I’ll leave a direct link to the video here.

The concept of Designing for capturing attention is so ubiquitous that there is even a book written on this topic. Please see the book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” by Nir Eyal.

MIT Technology Review left a review of the book which I’ll link here and if you’re looking for something even shorter to watch, here is a video of Nir Eyal giving a TED talk on his ideas:

Here is my fast and loose summary of his hooked talk:

The author of this book gives his opinion on a possible model to explain exactly how one can design services to create habitual users, which he calls the “Hooked” model. It consists of 4 easy steps:

  1. The Hook – This is a trigger that draws a person into the service. Triggers are presented in two kinds: External triggers – such as a notification, and Internal triggers – these are due to feelings from a user itself; Such as feeling bored and then going on Youtube. You want to design for internal triggers
  2. Actions – These are things a person does with the service
  3. Rewards – These are the benefits a person gets from using the service. It’s important that the rewards are variable rewards because this has been studied to be more effective for making users happy.
  4. Investment – These are additional features or ways a person can improve their experience with the service for the next time they use it.

Here is a simple flowchart explaining how this model works fits with the facebook platform:

facebook hooked model

Photo Source: The advertising business Bananatag.

In my opinion I don’t think this book is based on well studied science, but if you can appreciate the opinions of designers of architecture or fashion ( and if you can take in the author’s opinions with a little bit of salt) then I think you can appreciate this book.

My Take Away:

The use of design to capture our attention is nothing new. NPR’s Hidden Brain did a podcast on this just this month (Our Mental Space, Under Attack), but you can even look to well known industries such as casinos for classic examples of this. You may have heard before that casinos don’t keep clocks or windows because they don’t want customers to know how much time they have spent in the casino. In a similar spirit are social media platforms are designed to keep us in their apps.

One example which I learned from Tristan Harris (please see above) is the auto-play video feature. In the last year I’ve noticed that Facebook has started to auto-play videos that appear in my timeline. The funny thing is I don’t think anyone asked for the service. None of my friends have complained to me “Oh gee, I sure wish that when I fire up Facebook I can just have every video playing at once as soon as I look at it – because I click on everything, and the effort to click on a video is excruciating”.

I think a more realistic reason for this change is that Facebook has to auto-play their videos because their competitor, YouTube, is auto playing their videos. And why is YouTube auto-playing videos? Maybe it’s because they want to keep you on the YouTube website longer. They’ve always had a list of suggested videos next to whatever clip is currently playing but perhaps not enough people are clicking on the suggested videos so they decided they would just auto-play the videos anyways.

P.S. – As an aside, did you know that our Facebook timelines are controlled by an algorithm? Meaning we don’t even see everything that gets posted to Facebook. We only see the things that the algorithm picks for us. I certainly wasn’t aware of this, and there is even a study on the how unaware people are of this. Please see:

“I always assumed that I wasn’t really that close to [her]”: Reasoning about invisible algorithms in the news feed


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