Jaron Lanier on addictive social media

View at Medium.com

These are notes for a presentation to the drop-in discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, 150 S. Clinton Ave., Rochester, N.Y. at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23.

Free market capitalism + technological change = addictiveness.

Free market capitalism + technological change + artificial intelligence + behavioral psychology + advertising-based social media = maximum addictiveness.

In 2010, a venture capitalist named Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”  He said that in a free market, the most addictive products would be the most successful, and technological progress would accelerate addictiveness.

He didn’t have a good answer for this, because he didn’t want to give up the benefits of either the free market or technology, except for individuals to understand this process and shield themselves from it.

This has happened in social media. Addiction is a business model.  Research centers, such as the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Laboratory, perfected ways to use technology to modify behavior. Companies use behavioral psychology—positive and negative reinforcement—to make video games and social networks compulsive. 

Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now explains that Internet addiction is a real thing.  It is by design.

A vast amount of data is collected about you, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you goes, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion.  This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.”  (The honest terms would be “addiction” and “behavior modification stimuli.” Indeed, Facebook executives have written that they deliberately incorporated addictive techniques into their service.) 

Advertising was previously a mostly one-way street; the advertiser sent forth the ad and hoped for the best.  But now you are closely monitored to measure the effect of what is called an ad so that a personalized stream of stimuli can be incrementally adjusted until the person’s behavior is finally altered.  Most of you are now living in automated virtual Skinner Boxes.

Everyone is susceptible of being influenced on the biochemical level by positive and negative stimuli.

On social media, positive stimuli conveyed might include being retweeted, friended, or made momentarily viral.  Negative stimuli include the familiar occurrences of being made to feel unappreciated, unnoticed, or ridiculed.  Unfortunately, positive and negative online stimuli are pitted against each other in an unfair fight. 

Positive and negative emotions have comparable ultimate power over us, but they exhibit crucially different timing.  Positive emotions typically take longer to build and can be lost quickly, while negative ones can come on faster and dissipate more slowly.  It takes longer to build trust than to lose it.  One can become scared or angry quickly, but it takes longer for the feelings to fade. 

Those who use social media to exert influence – whether human or algorithm – are a little like high frequency traders, constantly watching results and adjusting.  The feedback loop is tight and fast. 

The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.

Whatever divisions exist in society are likely to be widened by social media.  The Internet can be a means of bringing people together, but anger, paranoia, xenophobia and conspiracy theories are more engaging.

The business model for social media is to find ways of attracting and holding your attention so that you can be influenced by advertisers, politicians and other paid clients for their purposes, not yours.  

Much material on the Internet is generated by people who are not what they pretend to be, or even by computers, and distributed on a mass scale by robots.  This is deeply corrupting to the political process.

That’s not to say that the Internet is bad, or social media in particular is all bad.  The ability to have a blog in which I can publish my thoughts to the world is a great blessing, and many friends use smartphones and Facebook with no apparent ill effects.

But social media addiction does exist, especially among young people (read the articles linked below, and the economic incentives that drive Silicon Valley will make it steadily worse.   The fact that social media are a major gatekeeper for news means that more and more of us will be in filter bubbles in which we only get news that pushes our psychological buttons.

Jaron Lanier says you can’t know how much you are being influenced below the level of consciousness by social media — unless you try the experiment of turning off your social media accounts for a certain period of time, say six months, and see what happens.

He thinks the problem is with advertising-based social media.  He thinks fee-based social media would operate for the benefit of customers.  It would be good if this were so.  I fear, however, that the problem is deeper.  I fear the problem is in the very nature of our economy and technology.


The Acceleration of Addictiveness by Paul Graham.

Six reasons why social media is a Bummer by Jaron Lanier for The Guardian.

Four arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now by Jaron Lanier for Thrive Global.

The Tech Industry’s Psychological War on Kids by Richard Freed for Medium.

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge for The Atlantic.

Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction by Bill Davidow for The Atlantic.

Addicted to Your iPhone? You’re Not Alone by Bianca Bosker for The Atlantic.

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