Although social media has a lot of benefits, it has also captured people’s attention in a way that doesn’t seem entirely healthy. Whether it’s young couples in restaurants staring at their screens or kids trying to get attention from a mum who’s not looking up, there’s something sad about the amount of distraction that’s happening. And it’s not clear whether most people realise that they’re being manipulated by very clever algorithms.
Much of this technology is not neutral: most social media apps and websites are competing for your attention, and for many of the big companies this is driven by the advertising model. This means that the more time you spend on site, the more revenue the company gets from advertisers, so a goal for these companies is to get you to spend more time on their app or website. As Tristan Harris explains, engineers at these tech companies are looking into how your psychology works to figure out the best ways to get your attention. Harris had previously worked at Google, where he studied how to manipulate people’s thoughts, and, in his 2017 TED Talk, he claimed that these companies steer one billion thoughts, as any notification on your screen leads you to have thoughts that you didn’t intend to have.
Another problem with this competition for your attention is the types of thoughts it might lead you to have. News sources have known for a long time that stories that shock or make people angry or scared get more viewers or readers, so they have tended to show these stories more. And Harris says that in the online world, stories that create outrage are very good at getting people’s attention. What’s more, if you do engage with these types of stories, the clever algorithms will show you similar stories to increase your time on site. All of this is likely to have an effect on your view of the world and the things that you spend your time thinking about and talking about. As Harris puts it, it’s ‘changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.’
Although social media is good for keeping in touch and seeing what people are doing, I don’t often post anything there. One of the reasons for that is that I once noticed how my thinking and behaviour changed when I posted a photo on Facebook. It was a good photo, and likes started popping up, and it felt good. Then I found myself compulsively checking to see if there were more likes, and more comments, and the good feeling changed to one of wanting more: ’twenty likes; I hope it gets to thirty’, my thinking went, as if I would feel okay then. I noticed what was happening to my thinking, but I still continued checking who had liked it, or even loved the picture, and who hadn’t.
That compulsive checking and wanting more is a common experience, and again, it’s because the technology involved is not neutral: Facebook have designed their likes system to make you want to keep checking. In an article in The Guardian, Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook, explains that their engineers designed this system to give you a little hit of dopamine when somebody comments on or likes your picture or post. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter connected to happiness and motivation but also to addiction. Each time you get a like, dopamine gives you a little bit of pleasure, but it doesn’t last, and it often creates a feeling of wanting more.
Social media has brought a lot of benefits, but the amount of distraction and the effect on the way we connect is worrying. This, along with the way that we are targeted with news stories, and even lies, leads Harris to say that he doesn’t know of a more urgent problem right now. Perhaps there will be some changes – tech companies designing more ethical systems, for example. Or maybe more people will become aware of how they’re being manipulated and realise they have more of a choice about what they pay attention to.