(Earlier in the year I had read the book Stolen Focus by Johann Hari and also recommended in one of my newsletters. This is a small excerpt from that book )
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – the fact that these apps and other online platforms suck so much of your time isn’t a design flaw. They’re supposed to be addictive. After all, there’s a reason tech companies calls its customers “users.”
And where did this design originate? That’s easy: the Persuasive Technologies Lab at Stanford University. In the early 2000s, the lab asked whether the theories of influential behavioral psychologists could be incorporated into computer code – in other words, it asked whether tech can change human behavior. And the answer, as you might have guessed, was yes.
Here’s an example. One of the psychologists studied in the lab was B. F. Skinner. Skinner was famous for the experiments he conducted on rats. He’d present a rat with a meaningless task, like pushing a button. But the rat showed no interest in doing this – why would it?
So Skinner modified the task. Now, every time the rat pressed the button, it would be rewarded with a pellet of food. Rewards would motivate animals, Skinner found, to carry out tasks that had no intrinsic meaning to them.
Can’t relate to the rat and the button? Well, Skinner inspired the creation of other buttons you might recognize: like buttons, share buttons, and comment buttons. Those little hearts and emojis and retweet buttons aren’t design quirks; they’re programming us to use social media in addictive ways by rewarding us for the time we spend on the platforms.
These buttons keep us engaging longer. But they’re only one of the many design elements geared at keeping us online. Here’s another one: the infinite scroll. Back in the early days of the internet, web pages were just that: pages. Sites often comprised multiple pages; when you got to the bottom of one, you clicked through to the next. The bottom of each page offered a built-in pause. If you wanted to keep browsing, you had to actively decide to click ahead.
That is, until Aza Raskin stepped in. Raskin invented the infinite scroll – the endlessly refreshing feed of content that now features on the interface of nearly every social media platform, giving the impression that there is a never-ending supply of content. If likes and shares encourage users to stay online longer, the infinite scroll encourages users to stay online in perpetuity.
Raskin, however, has come to regret his invention. At first, he thought the infinite scroll was elegant and efficient. But he became troubled when he noticed how it was changing online habits – including his own. Noticing that he was spending longer and longer on social media, Raskin started to do the math. He estimates that the infinite scroll induces the average user to spend 50 percent more time on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
The business model of most of these platforms is predicated on time – or, as they call it, engagement. This refers to how much time a user spends interacting with a product. That’s the metric tech companies use to measure their success – not money, but minutes. But money does play a part, too. Because the longer you spend “engaging,” the more chances the companies have to sell advertisements. The more you engage, the more companies track your behavior and build a profile uniquely designed to target you with specific ads. We don’t pay for platforms like Facebook and Instagram with our money. But we do pay with another precious, finite commodity: our attention.
Time equals money. The money is theirs. And the time – the attention – is yours. We can reclaim our attention … if only we can focus on the task at hand.
What do you think? Have you noticed a decline in your ability to sustain focus? Do you lose time diving down rabbit holes, only to emerge blinking into the daylight wondering what just happened? Do you skip the 20 min read in favour of the 2 min read.
If you have managed to read all the way through this newsletter without getting distracted, Congratulations!
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We have also archived all the old issues and you can access them at www.sandeepmall.com. They contain some very good tool kits to take charge of your well being.
See you next week .
The information provided in this newsletter is not medical advice, nor it should be taken as a replacement for medical advice. I am not a medical Doctor so I don’t prescribe anything. Most of the tools suggested are based out of scientific research and my experiments with them. Your healthcare, your wellbeing is your responsibility. Anything we suggest here, please filter it through that responsibility.