(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.
The beautiful simplicity of the video above, in which a Kindness song is broken down and demonstrated to a young boy, is effective because it explores the dynamic of young children being introduced to contemporary ‘adult’ culture. Videos working on this theme have been repeatedly popular over the past few years. Whether they are candidly reviewing Skrillex at a makeshift disco, harmonising their way through Ariel Pink tracks or simply waking up and having an instinctive bop to Waka Flocka Flame, there is clearly something we find endlessly fascinating about children interacting with music from outside the mainstream cultural frame, which would otherwise be unlikely to enter their sphere.
This study just appeared in my inbox:
“For many people, there’s an automatic assumption that the Internet is bad. This is one of the first studies to show that there’s a psychological benefit of Facebook,” Hancock said.
In the study, 63 Cornell students were left alone in the university’s Social Media Lab; they were seated either at computers that showed their Facebook profiles or at computers that were turned off. Some of the off computers had mirror propped against the screen; others had no mirror.
Those on Facebook were allowed to spend three minutes on the page, exploring only their own profiles and associated tabs. They were then given a questionnaire designed to measure their self-esteem.
Those in the mirror and control groups were given the same questionnaire. While their reports showed no elevation in self-esteem, those who had used Facebook gave much more positive feedback about themselves. Those who had edited their Facebook profiles during the exercise had the highest self-esteem.
Interesting stuff. My first thought was to post it on Facebook, of course. Rather than doing that, however, I started thinking about the effect Facebook has on my life. I quickly decided that I’m probably a borderline/full-blown Facebook addict. I spend an inordinate amount of time on the site, often at the expense of other work I could be doing. If I see something funny or interesting on the web my first thought is to post it on Facebook. When there’s a lull in conversation I get out my iPhone and check it (in fact I have been known to do this mid-conversation which is pretty rude of me). I use Facebook as my main source for news stories, despite the fact that I’m quite clearly missing out on a lot of stuff because of this; I used to use my iGoogle homepage (with its varied and comprehensive stock of RSS feeds) everyday for this but I’ve recently just focussed on Facebook. In fact a couple of weeks ago I asked my girlfriend to change my password so I couldn’t go on it for an evening when I had some serious work to get done. It was an odd experience. Part of me kept getting frustrated that I couldn’t check Facebook, but another part of me was really glad… it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was the most productive academically that I’ve been in quite some time. As soon as I’d finished the essay, however, I was straight back on Facebook.
I’ve had an interest in clinical psychology for some time, having studied abnormal psychology during A-level and having been diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder many years ago. I’m particularly interested in the definition of mental illness and how it is perceived by both the profession and the public. I guess my interest is primarily philosophical: does mental illness really exist? How is it to be differentiated from “normal” suffering? Can it legitimately be compared to other kinds of (much better understood) illness, such as influenza and cholera?
Mental illness ≠ “regular” illness
Long ago I came to the conclusion that mental illness could not exist in the way that influenza or cholera can. Firstly, both these illnesses can be demonstrated to have a specific cause (viral, bacterial) and their mechanisms of action are fully understood. Patients may display different symptoms, but a group of similar symptoms exist for every person who has the illness. Mental illness cannot be traced back to a specific identifiable source, their underlying neural mechanisms are not understood and symptoms may vary wildly between individuals with the same mental illness. Rarely does a patient display symptoms that make them a perfect fit for a diagnostic category. Major depression, for example, is rarely displayed as just major depression – often various anxieties, phobias, or other disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are also diagnosed.
Before I begin this post, I just want to note that I will be using many complex terms from evolutionary biology throughout. I will do my best to stop and explain them, but should I let one pass without explaining it then Google is your friend!
Firstly, a brief outline of the post. Several theorists working on the psychology of art have, of late, presented (or assumed) a theory of a universal aesthetic psychology, grounded in evolutionary psychological reasoning about human nature. In this post I will criticise this theory by arguing that we should expect to see mixed strategies in creative displays (of which the most obvious is art) which serve as costly hard-to-fake displays of protean cognition. If these mixed strategies are maintained as balanced polymorphisms in protean cognition both across and within individuals, then there is not a single universal aesthetic psychology.
On the 14th January, Pascal Boyer wrote this article on the blog for the International Cognition and Culture Institute, in which he makes the case for serious cognitive science work on the difference between high and low brow cultural works. He argues that high brow works are essentially more complex – in his words they require “more mental work” – but must share some obvious similarites to more popular works, for example a Chopin waltz still sounds a bit like a waltz.