The Questionable Ethics of Social Media.

black samsung android smartphone on brown wooden table
Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

Recently Instagram added a new feature to the user feed. It now shows suggested content once you are done catching up. It looks like an innocuous feature but acts a clever way to hook users in. Touching the explore button takes conscious choice, but this feature takes it out of your hands and quite intrusively shows you posts that are designed to grab your attention.

Social media applications are designed to be addictive. Attention is how they earn their money, the more time you spend on their platforms the more money they make from advertisements. The incentives are there. Facebook famously introduced the like button to improve engagement on its platform and over the years we have seen many innovations in user experience design to keep you, the user, hooked in. These include the pull to refresh feature, stories, and algorithmically personalised feeds. Seemingly insignificant and harmless changes that have had far-reaching consequences.

The pull to refresh feature rewards you now and then when you pull. It’s designed to be addictive. Inconsistent rewards foster addiction. The users keep chasing the new post that might pop up now and again, the same technique that is used in slot machines. The behaviour of pulling down to refresh solidifies into full-blown behavioural addiction. Soon you find yourselves compulsively checking apps for new posts, chasing the hit, the little joy that a new notification brings.

Stories that disappear ensure that you open the app at least once a day, further solidifying the behaviour.

Furthermore, your feed is tailored to your preferences on every platform. This is designed to keep you engaged, to keep your eyes on the platform. The increasing personalisation of feeds has resulted in the creation of echo chambers. Polarisation has increased. For example, let’s suppose the user searches for an opinion on say YouTube, then they click on related videos, let’s say they watch two of them, soon their feed is filled with what is one side of a debate. One can easily go down rabbit holes like that. This encourages extreme opinions.

Facebook’s devilish like button is a merchant of anxiety and depression. Once the user posts a picture on say Instagram or Facebook they anticipate likes, comments, and other forms of engagement. Each engagement with the post gives the user a little dopamine hit and they wait anxiously for the next one. The rewards are always inconsistent which makes posting addictive. Overexposure to dopamine gives you high highs but low lows which explains the background hum of anxiety and depression in our lives. This desensitisation is what leads you to the ‘explore’ window of these services, why do you go there? Searching novelty. Why do you search for novelty? Because you’re chasing the high of finding a new post. This desensitisation leads to progressively lower lows leading to an increase in the cases of depression.

We feel guilty about the time we spend on our phones, but how much of it is down to us and how much of it is because it’s an unfair fight. We are struggling against companies that get paid for getting our attention. There are user experience designers publishing papers on how to increase user engagement, analysing every aspect of the application from the colour of the buttons to the shape of them.

The lines are blurry. At what point does a feature go from a way to enhance user experience to scientifically proven methods that induce behavioural addiction. Beware, the waters are murky and everybody is fighting for your attention.

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