The profound impact of the technology of social networking on our culture, especially social media juggernaut Facebook, is a phenomenon that is unique in human history, allowing friends, loved ones, and even complete strangers to connect from disparate corners of the interweb. Conversely, it has also been used to spread disinformation, such as in the case of Russian hackers meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, and for many it has also become the object of addictive behavior. Even the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, lamented that his creation was being "used to divide people": the sad reality of powerful tools is that they can be put to both positive and negative uses.
But how did Facebook, now with over 2 billion active user accounts — potentially representing more than a quarter of the planet’s 7.6 billion people — become such an ubiquitous fixture in so many people’s lives? Recently, former Facebook president Sean Parker and former Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein have confessed to their part in the mechanisms behind the insinuation of social media — and its addictive allures — into billions of lives.
Sean Parker, founder of file-sharing service Napster and early social networking service Plaxo, was president of Facebook from 2004 to 2005, and instrumental in the formation of the social networking platform as a viable company. Prior to his tenure at Facebook, Parker was also an informal advisor to Zuckerberg, and continued to be influential in the evolution of the company after his scandal-prompted departure, meaning that he had a hand in devising the tools that make Facebook so addictive.
In a recent interview with Axios, Parker said that when they were forming Facebook into a company, he didn’t understand "the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways.
"God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains."
Parker goes on to explain that the concepts behind these applications were based on the question of "’how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we 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. 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 vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway."
In an October 2017 interview with The Guardian, former Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein describes his invention of the now ubiquitous "like" button. Originally called the "awesome" button, Rosenstein envisioned the feature to be a method of sending positivity across Facebook in a simple, economical fashion. But the effect of the feature wound up simply becoming "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure," without any real substance to the act of approval.
Rosenstein is concerned that, aside from proving to be a source of addiction for many, technology is limiting the ability for people to focus, even to the point that the mere distractive presence of a smartphone is leaving its owner "fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance," according to a recent study.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, warns that the technologies we use "have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later… just as their designers intended".
Rosenstein, and many other Silicon Valley tech wizards are weaning themselves off of the products they helped to create, due to the awareness they have of the addictive and time wasting properties that were designed into these systems. Rosenstein has even gone to the extent to have parental-control locks placed on his devices’ apps, with the passwords to access them controlled by an assistant. Even Steve Jobs is known to have placed strict restrictions on his own children’s access to mobile devices, presumably to shield them from their addictive effects.
Former Wired magazine editor and co-founder of drone manufacturer 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson, has adopted a similar policy, "because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids."