Social Media, the Network Effect and Procrastination

Our self-regulation is being undermined by design.

Posted Dec 07, 2015

There’s an army of growth hackers working in the tech industry to hook you deeply into social media. As a recent piece in the New York Times makes clear, the growth hacker’s job “is to break down the self-regulation that you have.” This has clear implications for procrastination.

The incentive in the online world is how much time each of us spends online, particularly with any one particular product.  Not developing “sticky” apps or websites that keep our attention on them means that the app or website is likely to go out of business.  It’s the economics of attention. It’s not a new game, but there are a lot new rules given the new world order that the Internet spawned.

I was immersed into thinking about this topic this past weekend while reading the New York Times piece, “Can’t Put Down Your Device? That’s by Design” (by Natasha Singer). The irony is not lost on me here, as I was reading the article on my iPad mini. It is truly difficult to put them down, isn’t it?  Of course, there’s an irony about me blogging about it too.  “Sticky” blogs are more successful. We are all vying for attention and lots of it. 

What Natasha Singer makes clear in this piece beginning with the title, is that all of this compulsive behavior is by design. And, with things like social media, the more people that are using the app, the more valuable it becomes. In economics, this is known as the network effect.  We experience this directly on Facebook, for example. The more friends we have, the more content and notifications there are, the more valuable our network, and the more time we can spend online.

What’s more, Natasha interviewed Tristan Harris (product philosopher at Google—did you know there was such a role?) who “. . . compares online engagement maximization to the so-called bliss-point techniques some food companies have developed to hook consumers on a stew of fat, salt and sugar.”  In other words, the product design and marketing techniques are playing on our stone-age brains trying to cope in a modern world. Where fat, salt and sugar may have been rare, valuable nutrients to our ancestors – hence our strong desire for foods of this type – in a modern world full of these foods, they are a recipe for personal disaster defined as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The parallel is clear, I think. Online engagement maximization hooks consumers on information of all sorts, and the recipe for personal disaster is defined as procrastination. We “give in to feel good” with time spent on social media while needlessly delaying other responsibilities and intentions. Short-term reward, long-term costs.

A final irony is that a fellow blogger wrote me the other day seeking permission to use content from my last post in his own blog. In the final email of our exchange he recommended William Powers’ book Hamlet’s Blackberry to me. Powers’ book is about how we might find balance between being connected and disconnected.

Irony and paradox abound in our technology enhanced world. None of us can really escape it, but we all need to become aware of the costs. We are being exploited, our self-regulation is being undermined, and we are wasting our most valuable non-renewable resource, time.