When Twitter or Facebook notify us with a new notification, the brain’s reward circuit is activated, which gives us a pleasant dose of dopamine.

You get your mobile to check the weather forecast but you end up checking out Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Slack before going back to Facebook. Immediately after checking all notifications, posts and comments, you begin to wonder why you picked up the device in the first place.

All websites and applications want us to spend time using them. The usual way to do this is to offer a useful and attractive product, but given people addiction to using their phones, sometimes people do not even need that to get hooked.

Often, it is not enough and websites, applications and social networks rely on an architecture that turns mobile phones into black holes of time. A time that, on average, exceeds two hours a day per person in the case of social networks, according to Statista data.

In essence, social networks are becoming “the new state of normal,” a parallel world that is quickly being recognized as the place to be while ignoring the real world. It is there where the depressed go to learn about the perfect lives of celebrities and their friends.

Given this scenario, we run the risk of not asking ourselves what forces us to share, just as we open the tap for water to come out, without wondering how it has reached our kitchen.

It is time to recognize that we often tweet or enter Facebook because of mechanisms that we are not always aware of.

You don’t know what to look for? Let us advise you.

Imagine a newcomer on YouTube. Its users upload 500 hours of video to the platform every minute. The algorithm recommends content from the front page; maybe some music, or the latest video about fitness or electronic devices.

Every time we click on one of those videos, the right column is filled with new recommendations with similar clips.

Although the platform does not detail how its algorithm works, we know what personal characteristics take into account, how many people have seen each video before and if they have seen whole or only in part of them.

The algorithm is so effective that 70% of the time we spend on the platform is thanks to these recommendations, according to the company’s own data. Then, we must also consider that as soon as you finish a video, the next one begins.

It may even be too effective: by proposing videos that we like, biases and views are reinforced. In what is called the “rabbit hole” effect, in reference to Alice in Wonderland, it is easy that after watching a couple of videos we continue to add to what we believe and that which makes us feel better.

The recommendation algorithm is not exclusive to YouTube. Facebook also uses its own to decide what posts or what news it shows us.

TikTok, a new social network composed of short videos, follows a similar strategy, with a personalized recommendations label. The application “analyzes each video and follows user behavior in order to provide an endless waterfall of options, optimized to keep your attention, of course.”

The dopamine factor

In 1971, psychologist Michael Zeiler carried out a series of experiments with pigeons. When they pressed a button with their beak, a compartment with seeds opened.

During some tests, Zeiler programmed the button to always give food. In other cases, he only gave food once in a while. These animals pressed the button more insistently when the food appeared between 50% and 70% of the time. That is, when they were not sure if they would have a prize or not.

When Twitter or Facebook notify us with a new notification, the brain’s reward circuit is activated, which gives us a pleasant dose of dopamine. They are our prize, our seeds. When a photo we have published adds hundreds of likes on Instagram is an incentive to continue sharing content.

But, as in the case of pigeons and as the psychologist Adam Alter tells in his Irresistible book, so is the following publication that goes unnoticed. This unpredictability of the response encourages us to share more content in search of more prizes.

On top of that, notifications not only sent us when we have published content and it is being shared and commented on. They are also one of the ways that social networks have to get our attention periodically.

On Facebook, for example, there are notifications when a message arrives, when a friend posts in a group we are in, when a group organizes an event, when we tag or are tagged and so on.

In total there are 15 different categories of notifications (friends, videos, groups … etc, that we can receive, either in the application, by email or even by text message.

The spider web that catches you and doesn’t leave you alone

Harry Brignull, an engineer specialized in user experience, coined the term dark pattern, with which he refers to how websites and applications are related to the use of our biases and preconceived ideas.

For example, some websites still put the cancel button in green and accept in red, trusting that we will not read the word inside each box. Others only give two options when it comes to avoiding notifications: accept them or click on “not now”.

Brignull talks about 11 types of dark patterns, many of them applicable to social networks. Some of us have already mentioned it:

  1. By default, the networks propose the options that make it easier to spend more time on the social network, such as notifications or, in the case of Twitter, which shows the most popular tweets at the beginning of the timeline, even if they are not most recent.

    2. When we ignore the suggestions of the platforms, we can find what Brignull calls “punishment.” For example, using networks in the mobile browser is an almost painful experience. The goal is for the user to download the app so that, in the end, they spend more time on the platform (and it is easier to receive notifications).

    3. Another example of punishment is when we receive a message from a friend on Facebook, we cannot read it in the mobile browser. The platform forces us to download another app, Facebook Messenger.

Some notifications correspond to what Brignull calls “diversion of attention”. We see the red balloon and believe that an important message has arrived. But then it usually isn’t important.

For example, while writing this text I received this notification from Facebook, and it is not the first time it comes to me: “Your contact information is out of date” it says. “Update it to access your account at all times.”

Facebook has my mail and my phone number, what else can you need from me? A sample of DNA? The platform wanted me to give it permission to send me text messages.

The first month is free

This trick is better known as the forced continuity. It is more common in other services. For example, Netflix and HBO, which offer the first month free, trusting that we will forget to unsubscribe.

But so do some social networks: if we want to try Linkedin Premium for free for a month, the first thing the platform asks us for is the credit card.

If we forget to cancel the subscription before the end of those 30-day trial, the platform will automatically charge us 29.98 per month.

Another dark pattern that also makes it difficult for us to realize that we are the victim of these tricks is the illusion of control. The platforms offer a multitude of configuration options to give us the impression that we can manage how we interact with them.

For example, we can go to the 15 categories of Facebook notifications and decide one by one if we want to receive them or not. But there are so many options that it is often easier to leave the default ones.

The cockroach trap

Many of these techniques to capture our attention and often times our money are not only sometimes unethical, but they can be counterproductive. Let’s say we get fed up and decide to delete the account. Up to that point, there are dark patterns.

The Facebook account can be permanently deleted, but in the first years of the platform, the account could only be suspended, which did not eliminate it. Not even expressly asking the company could users close the profile completely.

On Twitter, there is a period of 30 days to recover the account before it is permanently deleted, which makes it more possible for us to repent. On Instagram, it is very easy to find the temporarily deactivate button in SETTINGS> EDIT PROFILE. Instead, the link to delete the account is hidden on your website and not visible in the account settings.

This is what Brignull calls the cockroach trap: it is all designed to make it very easy to enter, but almost impossible to leave.

Dark patterns are not the only reason why it is so hard for us to leave social networks. In fact, most of the criticisms of these networks are read in the same networks that are being criticized.

In addition to the fact that the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages, there is another factor that helps explain why we continue to enter them every day: the network effect. This effect is that a product or service is more valuable the more people use it. On Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and other networks we have our friends, family, co-workers and future contractors.

This network effect is the reason why everyone is to blame for our addiction.

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