Updated: Mar 21
“Damn, I just opened YouTube for watching that one video and ended up spending hours on it”, “These apps are like rabbit hole”, “I logged in Facebook to find contact of one person, after an hour I found myself laughing at a meme” and so on. Feels related?
Most of us, having active online lives have felt this way at some point or the other. Why do we end up wasting our precious hours online? Are we just being careless or is there more to it? Are we to be blamed in entirety?
In order to answer these questions well, let’s understand how the tech giants operate and what are they fighting for.
We have heard the phrase “Data is the new fuel”, “ If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold”.
All the apps that we end up spending time on, be it YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat etc. are essentially free.
How do these companies make money? — By showing you ads.
How do they increase the ads revenue? — By showing you personalized and relevant ads.
How do they show you personalized ads? — By collecting your preferences, interests from your data.
How do they enrich that data? — By engaging you more on the platforms, by showing you relevant information, by making you spend more time on the platforms.
Your “time” or in other word your “attention” is what they are seeking, thus they design the apps in a way which will get you hooked. The more time you spend on the apps, the more your engagement, the more data they would have at hands, needless to say the more time you’d spend engaging with their shown ads as well.
Making apps that can hook customers is seen as a really positive thing in developer’s world, which is an irony in itself. Think about it, bunch of smart people, we call developers, spreaded across different tech giants, all trying to achieve the same thing: “Attention”. Our hours are limited, our attention is a limited resource and all the tech giants are in a race to get it more and more, in order to get their economy going that runs on your attention. These giants have enough resources, talent and researches that help in accomplishing the same. The psychological aspects that come into play in such a scenario are more intriguing. Can’t say that it happened by chance or intention that our usage of smart phones resembles one of the addictive casino games. Remember the slot machines?
Natasha Dow Schüll, author of the book Addiction by Design , talks about the design of slot machines that makes them so popular in the gambling world. These are addictive to the extent that there are cases where people ended up spending even 72 hours in one go, hooked to these machines.
She says amongst other factors, solitude (just human and machine), continuity and uncertainity of the system’s design make it so very addictive. If we make a check on what all of these features are there in our day to day interaction with smartphones, we realize that all of them exist.
Solitude: Looking at screen is not a group activity, it’s just one human with one’s machine
Continuity: Our feed is bottomless, the youtube videos are endless, providing the perennial flow of entertainment. It even has feature like autoupdate or autoplay that will require no interaction from human’s end to go to next, it’ll be continuous.
Uncertainity: We are not aware what is going to happen in the online world next, what the next notification will look like, what the next feed item will show. Some comment, some tag, some like, someone getting a job or travelling around. The world is always uncertain.
It keeps bringing us the unexpected information which can add up to something or be totally useless, just like the slot machine but still we keep scrolling it with the hope of getting some meaningful information.
As Tristian Harris has written in his article
Several billion people have a slot machine in their pocket: - When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got. - When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got. - When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next. - When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match. - When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath. How many likes did I get?
No wonder we get hooked on using these apps, coming back to them again and again.
Oxford defines “gambling” as:
Take risky action in the hope of a desired result.
Won’t it be right to say that we gamble each day? The difference is simply that we are risking our “time” in the hope to get some “desirable” notification.