nies engineer their devices is to allow
personalization, in terms of content,
appearance, and usage—tailoring the
products to the respective needs of the
users,” she says.
Facebook and Google lead the way
in this arena. Facebook allows users to
customize their personal profile to their
liking and indicate their interests by
engaging with content. Every reaction
a user has to a post teaches Facebook’s
algorithms his/her preferences; these
algorithms then serve more content
that even better matches the user’s preferences.
The result? The user visits and revisits the site, staying for longer, making
them a richer target for advertising.
Google does something similar, trying to guess which search results will
best match a user’s query, then serving
them up with increasing accuracy based
on insights that machine learning algorithms extract from its immense pool of
the world’s search data. Companies pay
Google to display their ads next to those
increasingly relevant results.
There certainly is nothing wrong
with providing more of what users
want, but tech giants include their fair
share of socially and psychologically engineered tweaks to keep users coming
back for more, and it goes beyond making the service more useful.
Sean Parker, a former president of
Facebook, has recently become what
he calls a “conscientious objector”
on social media, speaking out against
the negative effects of the platform he
helped to create. He told Axios that the
process behind Facebook and other social media websites is wholly concerned
with consuming as much of users’ time
and attention as possible.
This means these companies “need
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,” Parker said. “And
that’s going to get you to contribute
more content, and that’s going to get
you more likes and comments.
“It’s a social validation feedback
loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a
hacker like myself would come up with,
because you’re exploiting a vulnerabil-
ity in human psychology.”
This also happens on smartphones,
IT IS NOT a good year for Face- book. The company’s ubiq- uitous platform, designed to bring users together, was used by Russian non-state actors
to tear America apart by creating fake
posts on highly divisive issues and using
them to sway opinion in the lead up to
the 2016 presidential election.
In hindsight, Facebook was the perfect weapon: used by billions worldwide, and more than half of Americans
use it several times each day. That much
attention, it turns out, could be weapon-ized by the Russians.
According to The New York Times,
“Facebook found $100,000 of ad pur-
chases that were linked to the fake
pages—designed to look like the pages
of Americans animated by particular
issues—that spread inflammatory mes-
sages about immigration, guns and
other topics; derided Mrs. Clinton and
supported Mr. Trump.”
The impact of these efforts was per-
ceived as so dire that Facebook agreed to
turn over to Congress more than 3,000
ads used to influence attitudes dur-
ing the election. At the time, Facebook
founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg
said, “It’s a new challenge for Internet
communities to deal with nation-states
attempting to subvert elections. But if
that’s what we must do, we are commit-
ted to rising to the occasion.”
That’s nice, but only tells one side of
While the fake posts were designed to
provoke outrage, some users kept coming back multiple times per day; they
were shown even more fake news, and
further influenced by false narratives.
If these types of sensational posts are
like a drug, then users have been programmed to be unable to get enough
of them from social media sites and the
smartphones that display them.
How Tech Gets You Addicted
Facebook is just one of several compa-
nies that rely on users’ continued atten-
tion to make money. Twitter and Google
operate on this model, too. All three rely
on advertising revenue to make money.
The value of that advertising revenue is
directly tied to the attention the plat-
form can attract and keep from users.
Tech giants excel at getting attention, offering products with features
users can’t access anywhere else. It
might be the ability to search for any information in the world using Google’s
search engine, or the ability to communicate and engage with friends and family from anywhere in the world by using
Facebook. Users might even want to
engage in a real-time conversation with
thousands of other people about breaking news by using Twitter.
However, it is not just the content
that keeps users coming back for more,
but also how the platforms are engineered to exploit human psychology.
While the subjective condition of “
using tech too much” is not classified as a
biological addiction, it can be a behavioral one.
“Tech companies develop their
products in order to make them appealing and user-friendly, so you’re keen to
use them,” says Daria Kuss, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Nottingham
Trent University. Kuss researches the
psychology of Internet use, trying to decode how products and services are designed to keep users returning for more.
“Some ways in which tech compa
Getting Hooked on Tech
Are technology companies maximizing profits
by making users addicted to their products?
Society | DOI: 10.1145/3204447 Logan Kugler
“It’s a social
loop ... exactly the
kind of thing a hacker
like myself would
come up with.”