Internet addiction and the techniques that stick

(Written by WillB)

This article is about internet addiction, the techniques used to amplify and exploit it, and how the exploitation of these techniques is a business imperative for companies that make their money online.

Internet addiction is a growing concern, and there are quite a few writers who’ve written on the topic. Damien Thompson  identifies how technologists are getting better and better at “the distilling of pleasures”. Bill Davidow writes about the rewards that exist for web companies to ramp up the addictiveness of their sites in an online world where users are always connected, and hence there are no physical barriers to indulging in addictive behaviour.

Few though have written about the actual techniques that are used to retain users’ attention, which is what I will be writing on here. My aim isn’t to say they are all inherently bad; after all they work because they appeal to us. However, I think it is useful to recognise what they are, and to recognise their role in driving compulsive behaviour.

First, for those who don’t know – what stickiness is and why it’s vital for web companies

As with older forms of addiction like alcohol or tobacco, there are people who directly benefit from the compulsive behaviour of others. For those who make their living running websites which make money from advertising, feeding this behaviour by increasing their sites’ “stickiness” (the extent to which a site compels users to stick around on and return to it) is absolutely vital to ensure their competitiveness, as more time spent on site = more clicks on ads.

The open design of the web causes intense competition for users’ attention. The user has made no financial investment in most sites they visit, and little investment of attention either; the effort required to move to another site is no more than that of looking further within the current one. Therefore a big goal in designing a successful website will be for it to be sticky.

The techniques for achieving this goal that I have noticed can be divided into two forms. The first is to make the presentation of content irresistible, and the second is to remove the ‘break point’ in the browsing experience where the user could say to themself “I’ll stop here.”

The numbered list (a bite-sized, oh so moreish nugget of information)


The substance you’re consuming on the internet is information, and the numbered list on a compulsive topic is a way of packaging this substance to make it irresistible and easily digestible. But why would a list be more compulsive than an article? Lists capitalise on people’s desire for order and completion; you know exactly what you’re getting out of it, after which you’re free (you hope) to do something else.  What, seen here, hopes, is that you’ll read another list.

Social proof from social plugins


Everyone knows social media is an especially compulsive form of online interaction, because our social relationships are one of the things we care the most about. Andrew wrote about this on this site last year. Social plugins are an attempt to leverage the power of social media to improve our personal engagement with traditional media. Sharing and commenting on articles that are socially enabled makes them more compulsive by bringing them into the real world of our social relationships. The fact that the information is coming from a personally trusted source can’t hurt either.

Gamification (Making boring things fun)

Gamification incentivises people to continue using a site with virtual rewards, like badges, points, or other signs of achievement. Examples like the one above (linkedin) appeal to the satisfaction we gain from completeness, while ones like that below (reddit) use a sense of achievement and competitiveness to drive engagement. One studyi on gamification listed the psychological functions these virtual badges serve: including goal setting, reputation, status/affirmation, and group identification. So gamification can give a structure and a goal to what we may otherwise see as aimless activity.


Infinite scroll

The infinite scroll is a technique most people will know from facebook, and it’s also used extensively on twitter and tumblr. In the old days, all sites were paginated (divided into pages). This gave the user a chance to read ‘just to the end of the page’. Now on these sites there is no end of the page, there’s always just one more thing to read catching your eye, and you’ll have to scroll pretty fast to reach a point where (briefly) there’s a blank space. This is a great example of removing the break points in the user experience. Nir Eyal has written a good article on the infinite scroll.

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This is the technique where just as you get to the bottom of the article, a tab slides in from the right to suggest another article ‘recommended for you’. It comes in just at the point where the user is about to leave the site, and is intended to stop that happening. It can also be combined with a social plugin for a double whammy of stickiness.


Apps are stickier than websites

It is interesting to consider to what extent the urging of practically every news site to download their mobile app is driven by the slight, but significant advantage in stickiness a user on an app gives them versus a user on a site. The difference is only that between closing the app and opening another one versus typing in a new URL on the web, but where a user is surfing and easily distracted it can certainly make a difference. Apps are built for stickiness, websites aren’t.


It’s worth noting again at this point the fact that while all these techniques are compulsive, they have also all been created to make the experience better for the user. This is what Damien Thompson was driving at in the article I linked to in the introduction – we’re just becoming better and better at the distilling of pleasures, and the distilling of pleasures can lead to addiction. Compulsive internet use is a difficult one to deal with because of the impossibility (and undesirability) of just ‘cutting off completely’, as you could do with alcohol or tobacco addictions. Therefore someone at risk for this kind of addiction has to devise techniques to use the internet productively. I thought this quote from the Davidow article I linked to in the introduction put it quite well. He writes “I’m learning that to function effectively and happily in an increasingly virtual world, I have to commit a significant amount to time to living without it.”

iAntin J. and Churchill, E. Badges in Social Media: A Social Psychological Perspective. CHI 2011, ACM, Vancouver, BC (2011)


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