Addiction Habits

The Social Dilemma – How Technology is Controlling You

By Jon Rumens on 19 October 2020

Insight from leading professionals on how to better protect your time.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Rewind 10 years, and I’m sure brushing your teeth, or eating breakfast would have been your answer. But here in 2020, research indicates the answer for 80% of us is “checking Social Media on our phones.

Are you find it increasingly difficult to put your phone down? Are you helplessly wasting hours and days scrolling through Facebook videos that you don’t even want to watch? If I asked you to, could you take a break from Social Media?

Chances are the answer is no. 

Acknowledging this radical, and potentially harmful shift in human day to day behavior over the past 10 years, Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” sets out to explore why this shift occurred. More importantly, it aims to show viewers they are being manipulated by tech giants to act in this way.

Comparing Social Media to a drug, the documentary draws on views and discussions from social historians and tech experts. Most notably:

  • Tim Kendall (Former president of Pinterest and ex-director of monetization at Facebook).
  • Chamath Palihapitiya (Former Vice President of Facebook and CEO of Social Capital).
  • Tristan Harris (Former design ethicist at Google, and Founder of the Humane Technology Centre).

At its core, the Social Dilemma explores three main themes: technology addiction, how tech firms are reverse engineering our psychology, and how they are doing so to monetize our time.

Let’s discuss some of the key lessons from their research.

The Addiction Factor

Decorative,Man browsing phone

Before getting into how tech giants use your data and information to lure you in, it’s important to note the framework of websites like Facebook and Twitter revolves around getting us addicted. And, according to Tristan Harris, they do so by designing their platforms with Las Vegas slot machine principles in mind. 

The psychological principles behind why slot machines are so addictive were originally discovered by B.F Skinner (1969). He conducted an experiment where pigeons were given food every time they pressed a lever. When the food came out on random occasions (rather than on every press,) he found pigeons pulled the lever more often.

In short, a win on a slot machine offers instant gratification; and when you pull the leaver – you could immediately be better off. Of course, you are bound to lose on most occasions – but these machines are programmed to let you win every once in a while. Every time you press the lever, you believe you could win. The addiction of slot machines relies on the expectation of rewards, and the thought you could win big at any moment – so you keep playing, even when you’re losing.

According to Harris, tech giants tailored their platforms to be addictive in the same way. And that’s what causes us to addictively check our phones, or keep posting on social media. Sometimes when we check our phones, we get something nice: such as likes from people we know, or free rewards – and other times we get nothing. In a similar vein to Skinner’s pigeons, it’s the randomness that keeps us addicted.

“There are only two industries that call their software “users:” illegal drugs and software.” — Edward Tufte

Targeting Your Psychology

On top of their general framework, social media apps waste your time by appealing to your interests. During the documentary, tech experts, such as expert mathematician Cathy O’Neil, give us insight into how exactly they do it. 

According to O’Neil, these websites collect information about your browser history. Every time you log on, they track everything about your user journey. They record what makes you stop, what captures your attention, what you like, and how long you spend on certain posts.

People assume when they use technology within the comfort of their own home, that everything they do is private. That’s not the case, instead: multinational companies, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, carefully monitor every choice you make.

They then use that information against you. According to Justin Rosenstein (former head of software at Asana,) these tech giants have developed algorithms that use this data to target and control your user journey. They do so by:

  • Creating a curated Facebook/Twitter/Instagram newsfeed, especially for you.
  • Using that feed to exclusively present you with content that grabs your attention and keeps you watching.

We know very little about the technicalities behind how these algorithms work. But we do know one thing – they were created with one purpose in mind. To target your interests, and keep us using their products for as long as possible.

On top of your user journey, these algorithms use information about your demographic, to make assumptions about how people similar to you might think. It’s why, according to Tristan Harris, when you go to Google and type in “Climate Change is…” you’re going to see different results depending on where you live, and the things Google knows about your interests.

In short, Google knows what they need to suggest, or present to you, to capture your attention. And they are doing just that.

Harris calls this business tactic “The Attention Extraction Model,” because it has one goal in mind: to keep our focus. And, as it turns out, while it’s a good business tactic – it’s not how we should be living our lives, or treating others. This tactic can negatively impact our mental health and is what leads under 24-year-old to spend over three hours a day on Social Media apps.

“The attention extraction model is not how we want to treat human beings.” – Tristan Harris

Down the Rabbit Hole of Wasted Time

Decorative, a black hole

Have you ever been scrolling through Facebook, watched a video, and then had another one suggested to you? It’s happened to me, too. And after watching that suggested video, I’ll get suggested another and watch it.

Next thing I know, I’ve wasted an hour watching videos I didn’t even want to.

In the Social Dilemma, ex-Google engineer Guillaume Chaslot, calls this feature of websites a rabbit hole. Because it’s very easy for users to fall down to this addictive feature, and get lost down them. When that happens, you get so caught up in the content in front of you, that you forget there’s a way out.

Once they’ve captured your attention, tech giants use these rabbit holes, to keep you there for as long as possible.

Monetizing Our Attention

I’m sure you’re wondering why tech giants are targeting your attention. And, according to Tim Kendell, the answer is simple.

As ex-head of monetization at Facebook, he needed to create a business model that didn’t deter users from using their platform, but at the same time, capitalized on the audience they had. 

Because of that, they opted for an ad-based model. Because they don’t have to physically pay for the service, users perceive the platform as “free to use.” 

Having an ad-based system requires these websites to maintain their user’s attention for as long as possible. Because the longer they keep you, the more ads you watch, and the more money they make.

Without you even realizing it, the websites we use every day have found a way to monetize our attention. You’re not paying in money, you’re paying in time – and these tech companies are doing everything they can to make you keep paying.

After all, in the words of Harris –

 “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

Worse still, these platforms don’t care whether what you are seeing is actually true, they just want you to keep watching. And given, according to an MIT study, fake news spreads faster than real news, us users are repeatedly being lured in and trapped by:

  • Clickbait titles.
  • Fake news.
  • Pointless and trivial content.

And they’re brainwashing you into spending hours a day watching it because it will make tech giants more money.

Real-Life Impact

Let’s recap. Tech firms don’t care whether what they show you is correct. Instead, they present you with information that will interest and appeal to you. And, to make as much money as possible, they allow companies to pay and target ads towards your interests.

Beyond a personal level, this business model has serious real-life and political consequences. It reaffirms the beliefs people want to hear, creates a divide in supporters of political parties, and allows corporations to spread fake news with ease. During the documentary, Renee DiResta, Research Manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, illustrates that Social Media is to blame for events like:

  • Pizzagate: where Social Media algorithms supported the false belief that ordering a Pizza from a store meant ordering a trafficked person. Their algorithm promoted the claim to those who regularly engaged with conspiracy theories. It resulted in a user approaching the Pizza chain with a gun.
  • The mass oppression (and killing) of thousands of Muslim people in Myanmar. As Social Media algorithms were used by a third party to spread fake news about the Muslim culture.

In short, it’s clear the negative consequences of Social Media span beyond a personal level – they also pose a threat to humanity.

Solutions to Take Back Control

Decorative, desk with pad and laptop

The underlying message of “The Social Dilemma” is clear. If you let them, websites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter will pull you in, and waste as much of your time as they possibly can.

The documentary rounds off by offering several ways you can avoid fake news, clickbait titles, and hours of pointless scrolling. Doing so will allow you to take back control of your day to day habits.


Use Online Tools Wisely

We’ve been using these types of technology for years now. They’ve become a part of our day to day lives. As a result, it’s unrealistic to expect us to give them up completely. But, if you are using these websites and apps, there are a few things you can do to avoid falling to their deceitful ways.

Harris offers a few tips:

  • Turn off your notifications. Social Media algorithms ping you a notification at a time that’s most likely to catch your attention. And that could leave you procrastinating and wasting hours watching clickbait videos.
  • Don’t use Google Search. Instead, use a search engine that doesn’t use your data to manipulate you. Harris uses Qwant.
  • Never accept a video recommended for you. On YouTube, Facebook, or anywhere. Instead of relying on algorithms and falling victim to Social Media rabbit holes, make your own decisions on what content to watch.

Following these steps will ensure you don’t spend hours wasting your time on Social Media apps, and will protect you from the fake news and clickbait that they promote.


Avoid Time Eaters Altogether

If you lack the self-control to regulate and control your time on these platforms, you need to avoid them altogether. During the documentary, Former Pinterest President Tim Kendall, stated that he programmed a piece of blocking software to prevent him from ever using those apps.

Kendall’s software isn’t publicly available, but here at FocusMe, we’ve taken the hard work out. We’ve designed similar blocker software that allows you to take back control and regulate your time on these websites.

Final Thoughts

The Social Dilemma reveals insider information of how Social Media apps are created, and how tech giants are reverse engineering our Psychology to manipulate us. 

It has told us that these websites use our own habits to try and keep us on their website for as long as possible. They don’t care whether the content we see is true, they only care which content results in more ad revenue. 

“How much of your life can we get you to give us.”

Knowing this, we can now use the tools and advice from Tristan Harris to better protect our time. In doing so, we are indirectly protecting humanity from clickbait titles, fake news, and mass propaganda.

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