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March 24, 2018

We are being manipulated

Brazen violations of data privacy laws and the ability to influence elections may feel like compelling reasons to ditch Facebook completely, but now is a prime moment to look at the hold the platform has over us.

One source articulates the basic appeal well: “every time we post, share, ‘like,’ comment or send an invitation online, we are creating an expectation. We feel a sense of belonging and advance our concept of self through sharing.”

That source? An article in Marketing News magazine, citing a study by a digital media advertising agency. Marketers invest a lot of time and resource to understanding our interactions on and with social media: innocuous when it’s to advertise shoes, less so when it’s to allow precision-targeted political messages.

But before we go too deep, let’s look at the importance of online behaviours “creating an expectation”.

Dopamine


This is dopamine: Dopamine molecule

It may not look much, but it’s a vital part of our neurochemistry. It’s the chemical which motivates us toward our goals and needs by giving us a bit of pleasure when we achieve them, to reinforce that particular behaviour.

The nickname “reward molecule” is a fitting one.

From an evolutionary perspective it encouraged humans to stay curious, and rewarded us for seeking out things that would make our lives better. Squirrels get some dopamine when they collect and store nuts in preparation for a cold winter, for example.

But it turns out social media is adept at triggering this pathway, by setting up an incredibly effective loop where we receive hits of dopamine when our content is liked, shared, commented on or otherwise engaged with, motivating us to post more content, to get more engagement. And so on.

Even knowing we have a notification, without necessarily knowing what it is for or about, is enough to give us a hit.

How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?


This question defined the mindset at Facebook in its early years, according to founding president Sean Parker.

Now the moment has arrived where questioning the motivations of social media designers and advertisers doesn’t confine you to the Conspiracy Theorist bin, it’s actually relatively fascinating to read about the development of devices social networks use to consume this attention. Notifications, likes, pokes, pulling down to refresh, comments, mentions, messages. “A dopamine goldmine”.

Individually, these devices contribute to the Facebook experience we’re familiar with, and provide ways to engage with the content our friends, family and advertisers share.

Incrementally, they contribute to a platform where creating, sharing, and engaging with content becomes addictive. Where your time and conscious attention are sucked away by a chemical process that is automatic, deliberately exploited, and incredibly hard to resist.

Ulterior motives


Our emotions are being manipulated, and our desire to belong socially is being hijacked. While there is not a way to write that which does not sound sinister, I’m not suggesting it is automatically a bad thing (although personally I don’t think it’s good). I’m suggesting it is a prompt to reflect, understand and decide for yourself.

Social media companies benefit from our attention. More users and higher engagement means more data, allowing more effective advertising to be sold for higher prices.

Marketers benefit from our data. Adverts that are targeted more effectively improve conversion rates (percentage of people who buy) and cost per conversion (how much an advertiser must spend to get a potential customer to make a purchase).

Marketers also benefit from us freely sharing and engaging with their content on social media, as an extension of our subconscious desire to advance our concept of self.

So perhaps the question we should be answering when deciding whether to #deleteFacebook isn’t “am I uncomfortable with how my data is used?”, but rather “am I comfortable having my emotions knowingly and deliberately manipulated at a chemical level?“.