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.
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Facebook addiction, thy name is Andrew Hirst.

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.

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