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.

 

 

 

They Grew Up on Instagram

As a millennial, I am used to being talked down to by older generations. My generation had and has many perceived weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is an addiction to our phones. I think this is a real weakness, but is by no means exclusive to our generation.

Cue Gen Z. This is a generation so addicted to their phones, they supposedly have no real-world skills. They don’t understand the difference between the virtual world and real world, and will have no skills to contribute to the economy by the time they reach a working age. Or so we were told.

What happened after the tragedy in Parkland has flipped a lot of that on its head. The day after the shooting, students looked straight into CNN’s cameras and spoke eloquently and directly to those that hold power in our country. At first, skeptics said it was like outcries for change following previous tragedies. But this time felt, and still feels, different. The actual victims of previous massacres haven’t been so direct in their response. Also, never before had victims of a tragedy seemed so prepared to lead a movement.

I don’t think this is an aberration or even a coincidence. Instagram and Snapchat are designed to make us feel like celebrities. We pose for the camera, select the picture that will most impress our followers, and we send it out into the world. Then…we get feedback. From the likes and comments we receive, we determine the best time of day to post, the best subject matter, and the best filters to use. To those that know social media the best – those that grew up on it – the lessons run deeper. They learn how to pose, how to engage the camera, the best facial expressions to use, the best way to posture. When I was entering the real world, we called these presentation and interpersonal skills.

It struck me about a month after the tragedy in Parkland that the students always seemed so poised in front of the camera. They know how to interact with all forms of media, social and otherwise. It is very clear that this generation understands how to navigate the complex world we live in today, which has been exacerbated by social media. Older generations have scoffed that high schoolers only know how to communicate through tweets and snaps. Guess what, those teens engaged a US Senator face-to-face on national television. It was clear that they weren’t fighting fair. Rubio was engaged in a game of the past, they were playing by the new rules. Just because they are effective on Twitter, doesn’t mean they can’t communicate effectively in person too.

Gen Z possesses skills for the world that is coming. Whether they possess all the skills society needs for them to move the world forward is something that we will only learn with time. All I know is that the brief glimpse we have gotten into the future through the actions of students from Parkland has me feeling better about the future than I have in a long time.