How can you live the life you want to, avoiding the distractions and manipulations of others? To do so, you need to know how you work. “Know thyself”, the Ancients urged. Sadly, we are often bad at this.
But by contrast, others know us increasingly well. Our intelligence, sexual orientation – and much more – can be computed from our Facebook likes. Machines, using data from our digital footprint, are better judges of our personality than our friends and family. Soon, artificial intelligence, using our social network data, will know even more. The 21st-century challenge will be how to live when others know us better than we know ourselves.
But how free are we today? There are industries dedicated to capturing and selling our attention – and the best bait is social networking. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have drawn us closer round the campfire of our shared humanity. Yet, they come with costs, both personal and political. Users must decide if the benefits of these sites outweigh their costs.
This decision should be freely made. But can it be, if social networking sites are potentially addictive? The decision should also be informed. But can it be, if we don’t know what is happening behind the curtain?
Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, recently discussed the thought process that went into building this social network. He described it as being:
All about how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?
To do this, the user had to be given:
A little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post…and that’s going to get you to contribute more.
It’s 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]… understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.
Human needs create human vulnerabilities
So what are these vulnerabilities? Humans have a fundamental need to belong and a fundamental desire for social status. As a result, our brains treat information about ourselves like a reward. When our behaviour is rewarded with things such as food or money, our brain’s “valuation system” activates. Much of this system is also activated when we encounter self-relevant information. Such information is hence given great weight. That’s why, if someone says your name, even across a noisy room, it automatically pops into your consciousness.
Information relating to our reputation and social rank is particularly important. We are wired to be sensitive to this. We understand social dominance at only 15 months of age.
Social networking sites grab us because they involve self-relevant information and bear on our social status and reputation. The greater your need to belong and be popular, and the stronger your brain’s reward centres respond to your reputation being enhanced, the more irresistible is the site’s siren song.
Is social media addictive?
Gambling is addictive because you don’t know how many bets you will have to make before you win. B F Skinner uncovered this in his Harvard pigeon lab in the 1950s. If pigeons were given food every time they pecked a button, they pecked a lot. If they were only sometimes given food when they pecked a button, they not only pecked much more, but did so in a frantic, compulsive manner.