We are in an addictive relationship with our social media tech. Design ethics can break that
We’ve been profiling the importance of design ethics for a while - see this on Franciois Cholet and Tristan Harris, and this on a Designers’ Oath from James Williams. What is a responsible way to shape someone’s attention through our digital and interactive media?
But this Fast Company piece interviewing Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, succinctly zeroes in on one deliberate design decision we face everyday: the seemingly endless nature of social media, and thus its addictiveness.
“We crave some sense of closure, some sense of being done,” says Wu. “Much of social media tries to prevent you from ever having that feeling.”
For Wu, who has written extensively about today’s attention economy and how platforms like Facebook and Google make money by aggregating large amounts of attention and selling it to the highest bidder, design is what sets the terms of any online interaction–he calls it the “agenda-setter.” But instead of helping users achieve their goals, design often is used to exploit their weaknesses.
Social media sites, in particular, are designed to create what he calls “false loops,” where you never reach the end of what you can do on the platform. He thinks that goes against our way of making sense of the world: Humans have a natural predilection toward creating experiences and narratives that start and end, like the social ritual of eating dinner with a friend, or attending a concert, or even reading an article.
But social media tends to disrupt these things–unlike a well-planned story or meal, Wu compares experiencing social media to a buffet, where nothing really goes together. Coincidentally, you also end up stuffing yourself and feeling ill.
“Our brains like to close things out,” Wu says. “I think that a lot of design now is trying to turn all of us into obsessive-compulsives by making it so the loops are never closed.” Film and TV offer a compelling parallel. “How do you feel after going to see a really great movie, as opposed to channel surfing for three hours?” he says. “It’s a complete difference. One has a beginning, middle, and an end, versus you saw half of 10 shows and kind of got into something that didn’t develop all the way through.”
To be clear, these false loops are an explicit business strategy. The more you can convince someone that they need to keep checking your site, the more time they’ll spend on your platform–and the more ads they’ll see. It’s the same philosophy that underpins incessant notifications and the infinite scroll you find on many media sites (including our own).
“If you were to obey Facebook’s mandate–hey, this friend commented on this, you should comment back, oh, you need to like this–you’d spend 24 hours there and still you’d never close the loops,” Wu says.
“Very few things are more important now to the future of humanity than design ethics,” Wu says. “Design is the determinant, along with your will. But design creates the way you exercise choices.”
More here. Worth noting, in passing, that tech moguls don’t let their own kids have smartphones:
Bill Gates, the principal founder of Microsoft, has said he banned his three children from owning a mobile phone until they were 14, excluded ‘tech’ from meal times and restricted its use before bed.
His wife Melinda, a former Microsoft executive, said last year that if she could rewind the clock she would have held out further against smartphones: ‘I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets.’
The late Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc, was even sterner: in a New York Times interview in late 2010, he revealed that his children had never used what was then Apple’s exciting new product, the iPad, saying: ‘We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’
Tim Cook, the current Apple CEO, doesn’t have children of his own, but said: ‘I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on’ — including a firm instruction to stay off social media.
One might have imagined that the self-proclaimed geeks and nerds of Silicon Valley would be tech’s greatest cheerleaders. Yet it seems that the tech elite are instead keenly aware of just how much effort goes into making devices addictive, and how disturbingly successful that has been.
As constant ‘connectivity’ seems to be warping both our political systems and our mental health, some tech pioneers are showing signs of guilt, rendered uneasy by the monstrous reach of their inventions.
Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook — who left the company in 2005 — said last year that he had become ‘something of a conscientious objector’ against social platforms.
The original thought process behind social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, he said, was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.’
The aim, Parker said, was to create ‘a social validation feedback loop’ that ‘exploits a vulnerability in human psychology’. He added: ‘The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. We did it anyway.’
For those who recognised the enormous potential of a ‘social validation feedback loop’ early, it has brought unimaginable profits. Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, is worth roughly $67 billion.
Last summer he wrote a public letter to his new daughter, August, in which he made no mention of tech. Instead, he talked about putting leaves in buckets, reading Dr Seuss books and taking naps. ‘The world can be a serious place,’ he wrote, ‘That’s why it’s important to make time to go outside and play.’