– 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.
Social media companies operate in the same mantra as any other company in a free market system: make the most profits as possible, keep customers happy and make sure they keep coming back. These motives aren’t nefarious per se, but they shouldn’t be pursued (through dubious business practices) to the detriment of their users particularly children who, in their developing minds, are easily influenced by what they see online.
The influence of Big Tech
Our smartphone has become an extra appendage of some sort. Imagine going about the day without your phone and it would most likely be a debilitating experience. In a study conducted by Asurion, 31 percent of 2,000 U.S. adults with a smartphone that were surveyed claimed they feel anxious when separated from their phone. Meanwhile, 60 percent of respondents “occasionally feel stress when their phone is out of reach.” This demonstrates how powerless we are to technology that our ability to function is largely dependent on this superficial device – and tech companies are very much aware of this. Heck, their entire business model is built around maximizing the amount of time each user spends on their platform. The more a user is fixated on his or her smartphone screen, the easier it is to persuade advertisers to pay top dollars for ad placements. In just the second quarter of 2017, Facebook made $9.16 billion in ad revenue (87% of which came from mobile ads). Let that sink in.
The overreach of social media companies
In an interview with Axios, ex-Facebook president Sean Parker admitted that social media companies capitalize on weaknesses in the human psyche. Human beings seek validation whether we admit it or not. Nowadays, we score validation in the form of likes or comments. Parker described them as “little dopamine hits,” which drive users to engage more in order to satisfy their desire for more validation. To put it simply, dopamine is a chemical present in the body that’s released when dopamine neurons become activated through pleasure or the expectation of it. It perpetuates through a process he called “social-validation feedback loop.”
As if Parker’s comments weren’t controversial enough, a recently leaked Facebook internal memo from June 2016 is making rounds on the internet, and is causing quite a stir. Company vice president Andrew Bosworth allegedly sent out the aforementioned memo with the following comment:
We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. All of it…Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.
He has since disavowed the content of the memo, and maintained that it was meant to provoke discussion within the company.
Five, ten years from now, something new, perhaps more addictive, would take over and change the social media landscape as we know it. The question is, how much more are we willing to capitulate to our tech overlords.