we’re addicted to notifications, likes and follower counts. so what now?
Withholding notifications and then releasing them en masse is just one sinister tactic employed by social media platforms to increase our addiction. Do we need to take heed of Kanye's advice and eradicate follower numbers and likes altogether?
Image via Instagram
The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. 150 is also the figure British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed as the maximum number of people with whom we can maintain stable relationships. Stable meaning, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.
Despite this symmetry, these tendencies are diametrically opposed. It is 2018, after all, and people do not quaintly “bump into” one another at bars, so much as follow and stalk from afar, sliding into far-flung DMs without a moment’s thought to the anthropological implications. We now possess the ability to interact instantly with a network of up to two billion people worldwide. 150, by contrast, sounds implausibly small.
This drastic widening of our social circle online is heralded by a seemingly interminable stream of notifications informing us, relentlessly, of what we’ve missed or are about to miss. These notifications have induced a state of near constant panic, generally accompanied by a queasy shame at being so enslaved to them.
And enslaved we are. In the 30s, B. F. Skinner observed that mice responded most frequently to stimuli when they were delivered randomly, precluding the ability to predict and prepare for it. He called this a ‘variable schedule of rewards’. Humans, Skinner argued, work in the same way; if we perceive a reward to be unpredictable and if checking is easy, we will check habitually in the hopes of a reward materialising, resulting in addiction. Like Skinner’s mice, we are intoxicated by the randomness of the notifications that pop up on our screens; providing short, sharp hits of social validation with a dopamine chaser.
"In the 30s, B. F. Skinner observed that mice responded most frequently to stimuli when they were delivered randomly, precluding the ability to predict and prepare for it. Like Skinner’s mice, we are intoxicated by the randomness of the notifications that pop up on our screens; providing short, sharp hits of social validation with a dopamine chaser."
Capitalising upon this phenomenon, Instagram’s much-maligned though little understood algorithm withholds likes and then releases them en masse. This ensures that the user feels an initial pang of disappointment at their post’s poor performance, only to experience a heightened rush of dopamine when the delayed likes suddenly appear, consolidating addiction every time.
Similarly, NYU Professor and author of Addiction by Design, Natasha Dow Schüll points out that the randomness and frequency with which notifications pop up on our screens mimics the addictive appeal of slot machines for gamblers. Schüll notes that people tend to become “problematically involved” with slot machines three to four times faster than other forms of gambling, because tapping, tugging and swiping in exchange for the randomised possibility of a reward triggers the insatiable mouse within all of us.
Tellingly, those closest to the machine seem most concerned by it. In February, numerous outlets reported that Silicon Valley executives are raising their own children ‘tech-free’, as far as possible, having observed the effect that overconsumption can have on psychological and social wellbeing. Many senior executives are also practising Buddhists, incorporating mindfulness, meditation and even extreme fasting into their lives and workspaces.
On the platforms themselves, the tide is also beginning to turn. Kanye West, philosopher of our time and newcomer to Instagram, recently used the platform to propose “a live-streamed meeting” between social media executives, to abolish metrics such as ‘likes’ and 'follower' counts, comparing the practice to “showing how much money you have in the bank or having to write the size of your dick on your t shirt [sic]”. Kim Kardashian West, whose career reached its zenith thanks largely to social media, issued a succinct response: “BIG FACTS”. Though the internet’s response to her response was largely derisive, Kim has a groundhog-like ability to predict cultural ebbs and flows, indicating that times may be a-changing for Big Tech in its relationship with users.
In response to the growing feeling surrounding the impact of social media on mental health and productivity, in June of this year Apple issued a press release announcing the forthcoming iOS 12 update, which would allow users to “reduce interruptions and manage screen time for themselves and their families”. The package included Activity Reports, App Limits and new Do Not Disturb and Notifications controls, allowing users to access data describing their own usage, charting time spent on ‘social media’ and ‘entertainment’ versus ‘productivity’. Like a disapproving parent, the update also takes note of ‘Longest session’ and ‘After bedtime use’, which sit accusingly below the data charts, letting you know if you have spent longer than average on your phone that day.
Most compelling, though, was the option to ‘Deliver Quietly’ or ‘Turn Off’ notifications altogether. Imagine: a life without notifications. New vistas opening up -- of long, uninterrupted stretches of concentration, articles read in one sitting, an entire dinner without eyes darting down, fingers surreptitiously scrolling, or those improbably long trips to the loo. A future, in short, that looks suspiciously like the recent past. And how grateful we would be!
The only problem, of course, is that once you have majestically asserted your right to a ping-free life by disabling all notifications, an option to ‘Turn On’ swiftly appears in its place. Central to this strategy is the concept of false empowerment. Tech companies use push notifications to present you with the constant sensation of freedom when in fact the menu has been curated so that all the options yield positive results for the company.
Tristan Harris is among a new breed of Silicon Valley executives calling themselves, somewhat dubiously, philosophers. Over the past decade he has possessed a string of lofty titles such as Design Ethicist and Product Philosopher at tech companies such as Google, Apple, Wikia and Apture. The Atlantic hailed him as, “the closest thing the Internet has to a conscience”. In an essay published on his personal blog in 2016, shortly after his departure from Google, Harris discusses how technology “Hijack’s People’s Minds”, using techniques not dissimilar to those employed by con artists. “Once you know how to push people’s buttons,” Harris writes, “you can play them like a piano.
”Most compelling was Apple's new option to ‘Deliver Quietly’ or ‘Turn Off’ notifications altogether. The only problem, of course, is that once you have majestically asserted your right to a ping-free life by disabling all notifications, an option to ‘Turn On’ swiftly appears in its place."
In the byline for a Ted Talk talk he gave last year, Harris is described as a ‘design thinker’, who helps the technology industry to, “more consciously and ethically shape the human spirit and human potential”. God complex aside, Harris unveils the techniques used to grab and hold users’ attention -- false choices, Fear of Missing Something Important (FOMSI), bottomless feeds -- and stresses the importance of reconfiguring platforms to accommodate the practical needs and mental wellbeing of their users, rather than reconfiguring us, their users, into miserably addicted bots, twitching obediently at every incoming buzz and ping.
Be it due to naivety or optimism, Harris attributes the toxic relationship between tech platforms and their users to unhappy accident, but agrees that it falls to the big companies to redesign their current business models, which are reliant upon users being addicted to their devices.
Harris envisions a future model for the internet based upon ‘Time Well Spent’, in which users’ time is valued and respected and companies are compelled to be upfront about their ‘engagement’ goals and how long they hope to keep a user on their site or platform. At the beginning of each of his own posts, Harris warns users how long they can expect to spend reading it and make an informed decision as to whether they really want to or not.
“The ultimate freedom,” Harris writes, “is a free mind and we need technology to be on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely. We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first.”
Until then, if a Digital Detox in the Bahamas is a little out of your price range, try turning your screen black and white, which eradicates the cognitive thrill triggered by brightly coloured notifications and, Harris says, encourages you to check your phone less. It works for me, kind of.