Everyone knows that social media can be intrusive and addictive, but a great number of us continue to use at least one platform on a near-daily basis. Many people are indeed hooked; most of them won’t admit it. Some people swore off social media back in the Myspace days, figuring that it was too invasive and killed productivity. Many users of today’s biggest platforms – Facebook and Instagram – are too young to remember Myspace.
These technological behemoths continue to generate monster revenue year after year, and with these multibillion-dollar profits, they can readily afford to hire top programmers and marketing gurus to brainstorm new ways to occupy our around-the-clock attention. But while company executives are always quick to tout product enhancements that will further entice users, they don’t talk as much about the underbelly of the process – the manipulation of our minds against our will.
Sean Parker, Napster founder and former Facebook president until he was ousted over a decade ago, recently shared some insight into the process in a media interview. While his disclosures were not surprising, they should give us all pause.
According to Parker, the core thought process behind building Facebook into a worldwide social media powerhouse was the following query: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Parker’s answer to the question was a bit scarier:
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“(W)e needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.… It’s a social validation feedback loop.… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.… (The inventors) understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brain – a chemical which sends signals to our other nerve calls and regulates our emotional responses, our movements, and our sensations or pleasure and pain. When we derive instant pleasure – an emotional response – from a Facebook comment complimenting our family photo at a dance recital, dopamine is the cause.
There is nothing unhealthy about this process per se, and dopamine is not bad. What is unhealthy from a psychological standpoint is the thought that our vulnerabilities are being excised for commercial profit, and that we are turning to social media for chemical responses in our brain that could be could also be derived from less sedentary activities.
If we can get a shot of dopamine from catching a ball in our yard with our children, isn’t that better than a shot of dopamine from a like on Facebook? And if we’re subconsciously looking for a dopamine hit from social media while driving our cars, isn’t that unsafe for everyone else on the road?
There is much left to be explored in this new neuropsychological landscape, but Mr. Parker should be commended for providing us a bit of insight to spark our debates – as predictable as his revolutions may have been. Social media has a plan for us all, and we should be involved in it, too.
Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.