Addicting By Design


Addicting By Design

As media channels shift from conventional broadcast and print outlets to social media, we’ve been studying the changing relationship between audiences and the operators of each platform.

It’s comforting to assume that Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies work for the common good. Google was the democratization of information. Facebook was connecting the world. Twitter brought unprecedented accountability through citizen journalism.

But over the last couple years, we're beginning to understand the underbelly of these organizations. 

Facebook alone has compiled an enormous amount of data on its users. They sell their ability to deliver highly targeted advertising to their huge network of users. That part of their business practices has been widely questioned. But there is another piece beyond privacy concerns that is already having an impact. Target ads are only effective if people are there to see them, and Facebook is really good at keeping you on its site. Facebook is designing addictive products first and useful products second, because in a race for our attention, addicted users are more valuable than balanced, healthy or happy ones.

As we use Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, or Twitter, our behavior is being monitored – every user, all the time. When are we active? What did we do right before we left the site? What kinds of posts are we interacting with? What keeps us engaged? These tech companies have a massive amount of behavioral data to help them design an experience that keeps us on the platform. It’s why your Facebook and Instagram feeds are effectively bottomless (you can scroll forever without running out of content) and it’s why your Netflix and YouTube videos automatically play the next video.

Of course, addicting consumers has always been valuable. Cigarettes, pornography, drug and alcohol producers, the sugar industry, and others have profited from getting audiences hooked. All have produced public health epidemics.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise, then, that there is a new and growing body of research that suggests our time spent on social media and binge watching Netflix is already causing public health issues.

Social media has done many good things, and has the potential to be a part of a balanced life. But right now, the sites are rigging the system to distract us from that practice. Some inside the tech world are beginning to speak up. Tristan Harris, formerly a design ethicist at Google and currently launching the Center for Humane Technology, gave a great Ted Talk on this race for our attention.

These are the guidelines we’re sharing with our clients and we welcome your suggestions as well:

1)    Make sure your content is always driving people to connect in a larger way. If you create content meant primarily to capture attention, make sure there is a follow-up that builds on that momentum. Creating a motivated base is only a positive if you can mobilize them to act, donate, and build real community.

2)    In order to accomplish this, take social media seriously. It is least effective when it is just a place to throw everything you were producing for other reasons. In order to bring the true value of social media to life, create campaigns, not just content. This will help keep your social media use honest and make it much more likely to truly connect with your audience.

3)    Lead with hope and connection. If one of the things that draw us to social media is loneliness and a drive to connect, be the voice that allows that to actually happen. Provocative, rage-educing posts are tempting, and at times important, but hate is a short-term motivator. It only connects through division, and our world needs us to do better.

4)    Never lose sight of your goals. It can be easy to want to just get something up on your social media platforms. It has expanded the creative possibilities of individuals and organizations alike. But the value of posting to post is hurting us as much as it helps. Your social media activity should be moving people towards bigger goals than likes, shares. And it can! It just takes a little strategic thinking and commitment.

Want to talk more? We help people get results they can measure on issues that matter, from research design to award-winning film, social media, ads, and media training, to quantitative and qualitative evaluation of your impact. We would love to get together and brainstorm how to build a campaign that moves people out of their feeds and onto their feet.