As a species humans have evolved a heightened appetite for sugar and salt. Primates found more energy from ripened (sugar rich) fruit for instance, whereas salt is an essential compound for basic body function. In the primordial era, these resources were also very scarce. This is why we gravitate to, and enjoy more, the food the contains significant doses of either or both of these substances. Up until very recently in our relative history, evolution has selected for this craving feature as a survival advantage.
Social Media on the other hand has evolved into a commercial model underpinned by the burgeoning phenomenon of Surveillance Capitalism. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning power the harvesting of information of our personalities, through an increasing array of data points. Buying patterns are reasonably obvious, but our political inclinations, our level of religiosity, our relationships, what we like, what makes us angry, our age, location, health status, and physical appearance, are picked up and then churned through increasingly complex and sophisticated algorithms in order to profile us with exponentially increasing levels of accuracy.
Through these tools advertisers now target us with growing precision. Their marketing machine is now far more affective, allowing the Social Media platforms to command a premium for access to their services. There is nothing necessarily nefarious going on here (as long as you’re ideologically at ease with capitalism), but the incentives are aligned in such a way as to treat us punters like grazing cattle to be lured into the trough of their platforms.
Ex Google and Facebook designer/architect Tristan Harris describes a system of Social Media platforms trading in the “Attention Real-estate”. This is not the amount of visitors per se, but the combined time that visitors spend engaged in a site that is what is most keenly valued. Looking, commenting, liking, getting angry, and crucially sharing and propagating…is what is sold to the advertisers. This is what the advertisers pay most for.
To illustrate, lets take Facebook for example:
Alongside the usual soft psychological tricks in respect to notification mission creep (e.g. Birthday reminders – come in a say happy birthday!, share some memories from last year, reminders of an event near you!), Facebook has its own sprinkling of sugar and salt to keep your nose snuffling in its pasture.
The Sugar = Lad Bible, Daily Mash, The Poke and their ilk, spreading cheerful humour and delight. Those funny YouTube videos of forklift mishaps, the cute and heartwarming pet rescue stories, and lets not forget those life affirming, inspirational quotes set on a sunny beach background. All these things raise a smile, and we like, laugh, and even share if we feel particularly taken with the content. Let’s brighten up my friends day in the process of browsing! Why not?
The Salt = Outrage Porn! A new term, but that is essentially the Salt. Share if you agree! Political and religious outrage, terrorism or tales of human rights abuses, very often from sites that feature a flag of some description as its profile picture. You’re amazed at just how right-wing some of your friends are. You think “what, exactly, is going on here!?”.
Outrage, disgust, and indignation are extremely powerful human emotions. We are triggered into action by these emotions more often than we are by all the other positive emotions. In Facebook parlance action = sharing. You share that which you find most offensive or disagreeable, or you feel compelled to correct some stranger, whom you’ve never even met, who has got something “wrong” on the internet!
When you engage you become part of the story, part of some little unfolding drama. Your circle of friends may even “Like” (or even “Love”) your comment, proclaimation, or shared article of rage. This interaction then becomes a self-reinforcing, and then a propagating, feedback loop. It validates you as a voice and contributor to the drama, and gives you, in the process, those warm, glowy, happy feelings. It massages your ego.
Have you noticed that there is a lot of the Sugar and the Salt, but not much in between?? I mean where’s that nourishing protein here? That’s because the potency is in the Sugar and Salt. That’s what makes you interact. That’s what makes you stay longer. That is what increases that array of data points. That’s what feeds the AI. And, that’s what profiles us into nice little bundles ready for the advertisers!
As always, our only form of defence is through knowledge and promoting awareness. Understand what is going on, so that we can engage these highly useful platforms upon our own terms again. Work hard to self-police and resist those knee-jerk reflexes triggered by those powerful human emotions. Perhaps disengage, spend less time, and have a break from them in general. That at least, is my plan.
Now, like a massive hypocrite, I will widely share this blog on several Social Media platforms!