Why Social Media Is Addictive

The Fame Lottery

There has never been a point in history, until today, when ordinary people have had the opportunity to become famous. Social media has given all of us the chance to go viral overnight. Suddenly we can be thrust into the limelight and have our life change forever, whether from a TikTok, YouTube video, or Tweet. 1) We don’t know which post will go viral and 2) we get validation through likes, upvotes etc which makes this entire cycle incredibly addicting.

People on social media are itching for growth. I had this feeling back when I used to use Instagram—I wanted each picture to get more likes than the previous one. Or I wanted more followers. And this was a perfect recipe for unhappiness for me. 

Infinite Scroll

Stopping cues are signals in the environment that tell us to move on from a particular activity. For example, most of us stop eating when the food on our plate is empty. Sometimes we may ask for seconds, or perhaps store leftovers for later, but generally speaking, we eat no more or no less than what is set in front of us.

Social media platforms remove these cues on their platforms. The main example of this is the infinite feed. Infinite feeds allow us to scroll indefinitely while never providing us a signal to stop. There are no paginations, no reloads, no action we need to take to move onto the next page.

And this strategy is not something particular to social media. Most websites today have adopted similar approaches. For example, the Netflix autoplay function makes it effortless to binge episode after episode of a show.

In fact, removing stopping cues is a key feature of how casinos encourage people to spend more time at the slots. Their facilities have their clocks and windows removed, so that people don’t realize how much time has passed since they've started gambling. And if a software feature is inspired from casinos, we should all be extremely wary of it.

Echo Chambers

In the early days of social media, feeds were organized chronologically. You would see your friends’ posts in the exact order in which they posted them. When you would refresh your feed, most of the time nothing would change at all, because no new content had been generated by the people you followed.

But that approach has been phased out by every major social media company. Today, feeds are organized according to how likely a particular post will capture your attention—what will get you to like, comment, or simply stare at the screen for a long time. 

In order to create this ranking, machine learning algorithms are continuously crunching numbers behind the scenes.They are trying to figure out exactly what you’re interested in, and more importantly, what echo chamber you belong to. Because once it knows what echo chamber you belong to, it knows precisely which type of content will keep you on the platform for hours on end.

And let’s face it, we love seeing what our side of a discussion has to say, whether in regards to politics, science, or culture. We like seeing our side clash with the competition, especially if our side ends up winning.

Conclusion

These are just three approaches many social media companies use to keep people addicted to that platform. Their business model necessitates individuals using their products for hours each day. Recognizing these strategies can help us use social media on our own terms, rather than theirs.