What makes social media platforms so addictive?

Two things: the growing field of Optimization and the age-old concept of Network Effects.

Why does this help explain why these platforms can be so addictive? It’s because the companies running these platforms know that they are part of the attention economy. If they take their foot off the pedal, our attention to wander to one of their competitors. Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, has said that its main competitors are Facebook, Youtube and sleep. Our attention on is the economic engine that enables a lot of these tech companies to thrive.

So what do these companies do to encourage us to devote as much of our attention to them as possible? They test. They test and test and test and test. Facebook is running more tests in a single day than the FDA runs in a year, according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of the book Everybody Lies.

The tests they run are called A/B tests, or simply referred to as optimization. What companies like Facebook do, is they develop teams of experts that understand their users. These experts develop hypotheses about what will make the user experience better, or more “sticky”. These hypotheses can be anything from changing the color of a button to drive higher conversion rates, to radical changes to its interface to increase the amount of time users spend on the platform.

Then the hypothesis is tested in the form of an A/B test. Even though its called an A/B test, it can assess any number of variables. The button color test can test eight different colors, but it is still an A/B test. Multivariate testing comes into play when the impact of multiple variables are being tested in combination – maybe the new interface combined with the button color change will result in the highest amount of conversion.

Crucial to the A/B test is that “winning criteria” are established. This is means that the testers define metrics (conversion rates, time spent on site, clicks, etc.) whereby if the test variable can show a statistically significant increase in that metric, then the test is considered to be a winner. If a statistically significant winner cannot be found, it’s back to the drawing board.

To test these variables, identical groups of users are shown the control (the way the button looked before) and the test (the new button color). The test runs until the size of each group reaches a statistically significant sample size. Usually this means that testers believe that the result they see will be repeated 95% of the time.

What happens when a winner is declared? The change is likely implemented on a broad scale across the site. But the testing isn’t done there. Since these companies have very powerful and sophisticated software and algorithms, they are able to compound successful tests to determine the optimal state of their website. If a blue button drives more clicks than a red button, maybe it’s time to test which shade of blue drives the most clicks. Social media platforms are able to determine what experience, content, colors, font size drives the most usage by specific groups of people. I may see a royal blue button, my wife might see aquamarine.

This is by no means exclusive to social media companies. All companies with an app or website do this. It is often said that no two Amazon websites look alike. Netflix does this as well, constantly testing new interfaces and ways to recommend shows to us. However, I am deeply skeptical of Netflix’s own valuation of their recommendation algorithm at $1bn.

This is why it so difficult for us to put down our phones and avoid social media. Every ounce of our will power is up against teams of experts that are constantly running tests to determine how to make it harder for us to put the phone down. Apple appears willing to aid in the fight against our smartphone addictions, but it will take more than an app that tells us how much we use each app to cure our societal ills.

This brings us to network effects, a simple concept, that can help us understand why social media platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat have to be addictive. The concept of network effects is nothing new, but it has scaled like never before with social platforms – Facebook being the prime example.

Network effect occurs when something becomes more attractive because more people are using it. To step outside of the social media realm for a minute, let’s consider video game consoles. If more gamers own an Xbox, it becomes more attractive for video game developers to develop games for Xbox. The more games that are developed for Xbox, the more attractive the Xbox console is to gamers. The cycle continues until Xbox becomes ubiquitous across the gaming industry.

With social media, it is even simpler. We want to be on Facebook because our friends are on Facebook. The more of our friends that are on Facebook, the more valuable Facebook is to us.

Network effects are exactly why social media companies have no choice but to run tests constantly to determine how to make their platforms as addictive as possible. In the attention economy, if they loosen the reigns on our attention for one minute, another tech company will swoop in and gobble up our time. If Twitter, for example, decided it existed for the good of society and no longer wanted to be addictive, the time we spend on Twitter would shift to other social networks that would optimize their way into our lives. Our friends would gravitate to a new platform, we’d go there because our friends are there, and the rest would be history. Every minute we aren’t on Twitter could be spent on Youtube, Facebook, Netflix, or – worst of all – sleeping, working, or engaging with people in the real world.

 

Facebook Jealous Picture

The most honest sentence I have ever heard was relayed to me by a friend. Her sister was complaining that their seemingly blissful vacation in Australia was lacking something. “I haven’t gotten my Facebook jealous picture yet”, she lamented as they were laying on the beach.

At first I was appalled. Who could be so shallow? Then I realized, I could be. I had that exact same mindset. When I’d travel, I’d look for opportunities to take amazing photos to post to social media. Once I thought about it, I kind of envied this person’s self awareness.

I like to think that I have evolved from the “Facebook  jealous” mindset. Maybe I have become less superficial now that I have a young child. However, I think there is more than just superficiality at play here. Social media has wormed its way into our sense of self and impacts everything from our happiness to trivial decisions about where to go for coffee.

It starts out when we are young, even if we grew up without social media. We come of age thinking older people have it all figured out. I remember envying older grades in high school because everyone in their class seemed to be one large group of friends, while mine had cliques and in-fighting. This observation was obviously false. I was just witnessing scenes of camaraderie at school, not actual friendships.

On TV and movies (at least in the 90s) it appeared that there is a way its all supposed to unfold for us. We’re supposed to have a high school sweetheart, who maybe it doesn’t always work out with once we get to college. Then after college, we’re supposed to have a job lined up at a dream company that we will inevitably have a long and prosperous career with.

As young adults, we determine early on that the “dream career” is a myth. But we still believe that there is this life we are supposed to be living. Maybe not a “perfect life”, but one in which we do fun, creative stuff with our partner, have awesome friends who do cool, trendy things, have a great relationship with our families, explore the far reaches of the planet, eat at the best restaurants, watch the newest shows, and listen to the hippest music. And in addition to all of this, we are completely stress free and have zero fears or problems bringing us down.

We have to know that this is impossible to achieve in our real lives. We understand that the stresses, the fights, the fears, the self-doubts, the awkward moments are all part of life. We accept them and adapt as best as we can.

These imperfections, however, don’t have to exist in the lives we project on social media. We have complete control of the narrative in this life. We can edit out the bad parts, highlight the good parts, and even crop out the blemishes.

The version of ourselves that we display on social media is always enjoying life, doing cool things, living a carefree life of self-actualized glory. We are cultured, active, informed, enlightened. We’ve been to Europe, South America, watch Oscar-nominated films or documentaries, eat exclusively at farmer’s markets and exercise all the time.

No matter how we might be feeling on the inside, the version of ourselves displayed on social media continues to be happy. This version of ourselves continues along some kind of trajectory that is consistent with the life we believe we should be living.

ESPN did a great job looking into the Instagram life of a Penn student athlete that took her own life. It’s a tragic tale of how the life we lead on social media can show a person that has it all figured out and loves life, while on the inside we are struggling to get through the day. Social media may not be the cause of depression in these cases, but it seems to be heavily correlated.

This type of behavior is often referred to as social peacocking. Who could blame us for wanting to put our best foot forward and show our friends all the cool stuff we do? And our friends don’t want to see the low moments we have, getting chewed out at work or getting in a fight with our spouse. They want to see their good looking friends doing cool stuff, right?

Plenty of studies have shown that use of social media tends to correlate strongly with being unhappier. Recently, a study has helped to establish a causal link. What they discovered was that when we see our friends engaging in these activities, it makes us feel worse about ourselves. The thing is, we don’t even believe that these people are really living such a happy life. Even though we know they are cropping, filtering and retouching their life, we still feel bad that we aren’t living that life. We end up comparing ourselves to our friends, which on its own takes us out of the particular moment we are currently living in and makes us less happy. Think about it – would you be more or less happy with the activity you are currently engaged in, if you are constantly checking to see what activities your social media friends are doing. The podcast Hidden Brain explains it very well here.

This means that we are actively engaged in an activity that has two downsides. The photos we post to social media are making our friends feel worse about themselves. Something we should seek to avoid. Also, by checking our friends’ posts, we are making ourselves feel worse. Another thing we should seek to avoid.

I think there is another thing at work here. We don’t like feeling bad about ourselves. We like feeling good about ourselves. But we don’t consider avoiding social media to be an option. So we plan a trip to Australia. Then when we get there, we will look to find that Facebook jealous picture so that we can affirm that we are – if only for just a moment – living the life that we want to portray to the world.

Foursquare check-ins used to drive my behavior. I’d skip over Starbucks to a cooler coffee shop, because that check-in would make me feel cooler. There is a positive externality here that I was experiencing more of my community and supporting a local business, but my motivation was problematic. I would look forward to hopping off a long flight and seeing my check-in rack up all kinds of points, rather than looking forward to seeing friends or experience a new culture.

It may seem insane that anyone would actually allow social media to dictate their behavior on social media. But when you consider how likes on Instagram can become such a large part of our sense of self worth, it actually makes sense. While this impact of social media has led me and others to become more superficial, it can become much more serious.

As I’ve posted before, I don’t think this problem has an easy solution. We can’t just tell kids to put away social media or delete an app. The roots of this problem are woven deep into our culture, and the psychological impact is profound. We are just beginning to understand it, but we are fortunate that psychologists are asking the right questions.

 

 

 

Navigating the Dark Side of Social Media

A few years ago, Aziz Ansari made the excellent point on the Freakonomics podcast that the time he spends on social media could be spend enjoying great literature that has been cherished for centuries. I find myself agreeing with that point more and more. Every time I check Twitter, I may feed that dopamine craving of checking in with that is happening in the world, but I don’t get any real enlightenment or true satisfaction.

However, as I have taken steps to cut back on my own social media use, I have not found that it leads to a direct increase in my consumption of real culture. For one, I don’t exactly have the ability to whip out War & Peace for two minutes between meetings at work. I certainly waste time on social media, and should spend more time reading great books, but it isn’t an easy substitute. This is in part because of how social media has inserted itself into our lives to be ubiquitous, available with as few hurdles as possible.

I do consider myself to be moderately addicted to social media – currently my fix comes from Twitter. Part of this has to do with the world we live in today, with my craving for breaking news constantly being fed by one thing or another. But I was addicted to social media long before the 2016 election, so blaming the news cycle would be a cop out. I think often about the Radiolab episode, in which they discussed addiction, and how there is a school of thought people who are more prone to addiction are merely more highly evolved. The argument goes that we as humans evolved to respond to the pleasure centers of the brain, because it helped us avoid poisonous fruits. The pleasure center evolved to make sure we ate oranges and not poisonous berries. Unfortunately, this makes us susceptible to drugs that really trigger the pleasure center. Could social media be similar?

 


 

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee wrote in USA Today that there are parallels to when humans first started forming cities. He makes the point that when we were spread out as hunters and gatherers, we’d come into contact with a few dozen other people a year. When we moved to cities, we’d see a few hundred a day. This created an environment in which diseases could flourish. Before cities, a disease would impact only a few people and then die off because there was no one else to infect. Once cities formed, it had the ability to spread exponentially.

The same is now true of bad ideas on social media. If I had a conspiracy in 1985 that I wanted to spread, my idea would probably not extend beyond my group of friends. But if I’m on Reddit, Twitter or Facebook – not only do I contact many more people in a day – but my ideas can be easily and effortlessly shared by everyone I reach. Exponential spread.

This puts us in dangerous territory. An incorrect narrative, doctored photo or video, or mistaken identity can spread like wildfire. This is especially true when it confirms a belief that someone holds. The old saying goes, it’s easier to fool someone that convince them they’ve been fooled.

Bad ideas and false narratives are only one negative side effect of social media. Typical symptoms of depression in teens rose 33% from 2010 to 2015, correlating strongly with the increase in usage of smartphones and social media. Getting “likes” on our photos and posts has replaced actual enjoyment of experiences for some. Our sense of self worth is now quantified in the number of likes our posts get, leaving our psyches desperately fragile.

Psychologists have also shown evidence that we are really addicted to social media. Research has shown that receiving a text or Tweet can light up the same area of the brain as heroin or cocaine. This is why I am constantly checking Twitter. Not for real enjoyment. For that hit of dopamine.

 


 

A ray of light emerges from Reynolds’ cities metaphor. He shows us a path forward. We fought back against the diseases that spread with cities by adapting. We developed better nutrition, medicine and public services. There is no questioning that human migration to cities brought about a plethora of scientific and societal advances that would have been impossible otherwise. Likewise, there can be no denying that social media has brought with it advances as well. Disenfranchised can speak out, artists have new platforms to share their work, and sometimes it can be nice to see a picture of an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

The honest truth is that there is no silver bullet coming to help us. No app, no startup, no product, or any kind of technology-driven solution is going to let us enjoy the benefits of social media while offering us compete protection from all of its dangers. If you are like me, and believe we need help navigating social media, this is concerning. I don’t think we need to cut out social media altogether – it is clearly here to stay – but we need to understand how to manage it in our lives.

What needs to happen is we need to evolve, as both individuals and society.

I have taken measures to cut down on my own social media use. I deleted Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare from my phone. I still don’t have stacks of classic American literature sitting around my house. I have made a conscious effort to read more, but there wasn’t a 1:1 exchange for a minute spent on social media replaced with a minute of reading a book. It just doesn’t work like that. Social media has made itself extremely ubiquitous in our lives in a way that a book – or even a newspaper – article can’t replicate.

The societal evolution also seem to be off to a slow start. It was made abundantly clear recently that the United States Congress is in way over its head with regards to social media. The Supreme Court refused to even think about the technical and data complexities of gerrymandering when they realized how smart the analytics people were by describing the gerrymandering methods as sociological gobbledygook. Essentially letting the public know that if an issue requires any level of technical or statistical depth, the Supreme Court is not going to step in, because they don’t get it.

More simply put – this is going to be a battle and it is up to us as individuals to fight that battle. On the other end of our phones and computer screens are engineers, data scientist and sociologists that do everything in their power to make their product as sticky as possible. There may be an evolutionary angle here. There is a new predator among us, praying on our attention and capacity to learn and become productive members of society. Some will certainly adapt and survive – thrive even. My hope is that society can make sure to limit the number of us that don’t to as few as possible.

 

 

IHOP: Hobe is a better strategy than Hope

The internet rolled its collective eyes yesterday at IHOP’s “rebranding” of itself to IHOB. It is unclear if this new name will stick, but I think this stunt has accomplished what it was supposed to.

In today’s world of collecting customer data, developing lookalike audiences, finding your audience in the digital world, and determining the perfect message for the perfect moment for the perfect recipient – this stunt sliced right through the clutter. Yes, it is a stunt, and the jury is still out on how it performed, but it is not without its merits.

Here are my two arguments FOR the IHOB stunt.

Meal Shift

How many chain restaurants do you regularly eat multiple meals at? As in, are there chain restaurants you eat breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner at regularly? For me, Chipotle kind of checks this box, but its still more of a lunch place for me. When a brand has been built around a specific meal, as IHOP has, it can be very difficult to convince consumers to visit you at a different time of the day. I’ve been to a Panera for dinner before. It was not a fun meal, but I’ve never waited in a shorter line.

Apparently, IHOP had already been serving burgers. Who knew? Well, now everyone does. Burgers are clearly a lunch or dinnertime meal, so they’ve gone a long way towards convincing customers to consider IHOP as lunch or dinner option.

Buzz

There is no doubt this was a publicity stunt. Will it win awards at Cannes Lions? I honestly have no clue. What I do know is that according to the WSJ, online mentions of IHOP soared to 362,000 from June 3-June 11 compared to 21,000 in that same time period in the month of May. This is all due to the fact that the company has announced to the world that their menu is staying the same! Remember, they have been selling burgers for years. This lift is purely due to its marketing stunt. The goal of a marketing stunt is to generate buzz. Mission accomplished.

Now, take a look at the tweet from ESPN personality Trey Wingo below. He, like many others on Twitter, dove head first into the social media response to the IHOP rebranding. With all the burger chains jumping in on the fun, he has observed that June 11, 2018 was the day of the “burger wars”. In a way, this puts IHOP on equal footing with Wendy’s, Whataburger and others in the battle to serve America its burgers.

The looming question

The big question here is not whether IHOP can become King of the Burgers – it won’t. It is whether this extension of its brand into different mealtimes will damage its breakfast-oriented brand. The bet IHOP is making is that its brand is so strong for breakfast, that they have no reason to worry about losing share of the breakfast category in the QSR industry. Judging by some of the internet’s incredulity that IHOP could change its name to anything other than “pancakes” – it seems like this is a pretty decent gamble.

Even if IHOP is not going toe-to-toe with McDonald’s in burger sales within the next few years, they are likely to see an uptick in lunch and dinnertime traffic. Anyone that starts going to IHOP for lunch/dinner after this stunt is unlikely to think that IHOP has completely abandoned pancakes and stop going there for breakfast. Therefore, any lunch/dinnertime traffic will be incremental and a win for IHOP.

There is a chance that there is no uptick in burger sales or lunch/dinner traffic. While that could fairly be viewed as a failure, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle for the amount of chatter the IHOP brand has generated in the past week. Time will tell what happens with burger sales and its brand.

Gardening versus Painting

I once heard the horticulture legend Mike McGrath describe gardening as an “exercise in failure”. Meaning that you try things, you fail at them, you learn from your mistakes, and then you try again. Or you will wise up and hire a professional to do it for you. That is what I do with painting projects – hire someone that knows what they are doing. But with gardening, I continue to fail and come back for more.

The Thrill of the Hunt

I do this because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt when it comes to gardening. I enjoy the major landscaping overhauls, the weeding, the raking, the planting, the pruning, the mulching – all of it. Then I look for the next project. Something that lets me build on what I have learned and expand my creativity.

When we have a room that needs to be painted, I look forward to spending time in an improved room. I get nothing out of the process of painting. It is a grind to me. A wasted Saturday. So I hire someone to do paint projects for me.

I love to garden, I understand the need to paint.

We sometimes consider the “thrill of the hunt” to be a negative thing. In relationships, it does not lend itself towards long, sustainable partnerships. However, in everything from golf to the violin to math, it can lead to greatness. This is not an original or even complex thought – the best golfer isn’t the one that enjoys admiring his trophies – he’s the one that wants to spend every hour of every day perfecting his putting game. I promise, this isn’t a 10,000 hours thing – but let’s be honest, you aren’t spending 10,000 hours on something that you don’t enjoy the process of.

Find your Gardening

Most of us will never be paid to play golf or the violin, but us mere mortals can learn from those that do as we embark on our own careers. We tend to gravitate towards the things we are good at, because that is what people are willing to pay us for. But if you find that work to be boring or tedious (how I view painting), work will be painful and you will find yourself defining success in purely monetary terms.

If you are lucky enough to find something that you enjoy – where you enjoy the thrill of the hunt, not just the end result – the good news is that you don’t even need to be good at it. This will be like me gardening. I’m still not very good, but I’m getting better. And I’m going to keep showing up every spring ready to tackle everything my yard and mother nature have thrown at me. Find your thing. Stick to it. Get better. Maybe someone will pay you for it one day.

Since we exist in the real world with bills to pay and food to eat, your career will probably not be one giant passion project. To build a career (a real career), you will need to do a lot of painting in addition to gardening. As you progress in your career, you will find yourself able to do more gardening and have others, that have chosen to specialize in painting, do the painting for you. This is how you become an expert in your field, how you get to flex your creative muscles, and you achieve the all important status of enjoying the thrill of the hunt at work.