Persuasive Technology

People tend to speak colloquially about their “internet addiction.” A closer look at our online activity, however, shows all the signs of compulsive behavior.

We attempt to read an article or send an email, and all of a sudden we’re scrolling through Facebook’s News Feed, having completely forgotten our original purpose.

It may seem harmless, but these lost moments of our lives add up over time. As Michael Schulson writes for Aeon, “It’s the difference between wanting to go on Facebook for 10 minutes and ending up there for 30.”

Or 42 minutes, according to a 2014 survey of the average daily time spent on the platform among US internet users:

  • Facebook: 42.1 minutes
  • Tumblr: 34.2 minutes
  • Instagram: 21.2 minutes
  • Pinterest: 20.8 minutes
  • Twitter: 17.1 minutes
  • Snapchat: 17 minutes
  • Tinder: 14.9 minutes

Yet when it comes to setting good habits, Schulson worries that “it’s not exactly a fair fight.” Quoting ethical design proponent and Google employee Tristan Harris, Schulson writes that “‘Much as a user might need to exercise willpower, responsibility and self-control, and that’s great, we also have to acknowledge the other side of the street,’” adding that Major tech companies “‘have 100 of the smartest statisticians and computer scientists, who went to top schools, whose job it is to break your willpower.’”

Drawing upon Nir Eyal’s book Hooked, Schulson homes in on the idea of the variable reward—an unpredictable yet positive outcome—as the chief addictive property embedded into the design of our internet experience. Not knowing what’ll be next up in your feed encourages you to keep scrolling. “Uncertain reward can lead to obsessive behavior.”

Natasha Schüll’s Addiction by Design similarly shows that, beneath the scattered, impatient frenzy of procrastination, web addiction involves a trance-like and repetitive focus. “While we tend to describe the internet in terms of distraction, what’s being developed, when you check email or Facebook neurotically, or get sucked into Candy Crush, is actually a particular kind of focus, one that prioritises digital motion and reward.” We aren’t so much distracted as hypnotized.

In light of the power of persuasive technology, not to mention the financial incentives to keep it there, Schulson’s argument—that the web should be governmentally regulated—begins to make sense. Everybody recognizes the problem; but for most, the solution never reaches beyond a call for more willpower, with or without the help of self-imposed activity management applications. In this way, the go-to solution keeps the burden of responsibility on the user rather than the designer.

For Schulson, however, mandated “distraction dashboards” for smartphones and social media sites would allow users to control and monitor various elements of their experience.

“We could require companies to let the users decide how many deliveries of email they receive per day, or how often a social network can update their feeds.”

Considering banning certain features of persuasive technology altogether, Schulson sets his sights on infinite scroll and its kin.

“Tinder will let you swipe left or right pretty much indefinitely. YouTube, Netflix and similar sites automatically load the next video or show… Giving users a chance to pause and make a choice at the end of each discrete page or session tips the balance of power back in the individual’s direction.”

Whatever the outcome, Schulson’s point is hard to dispute: “As in any contract, there’s a balance of power. If the architecture of today’s web is any indication, that balance is skewed toward the designers.”

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