Social Conditioning

Alan Jacobs:

I don’t think we reckon with this phenomenon often enough, or seriously enough. The major social-media companies have been conducting for the past decade an implementation of B. K. Skinner’s principles more massive than anything we can truly imagine. They have found ways to get billions of people to volunteer for the experiments and devote sometimes hours a day to pursuing them. Operant conditioning at this level works. And its effects are difficult to undo.

One way to see this: often when people get sick of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and find some other online venue, they simply bring with them to their new location the habits they learned in the previous ones: the snark of Twitter, the rants of Facebook, the posturing of Instagram. It’s like the old line about travel: wherever you go, there you are. It’s hard enough for people to leave Facebook or Instagram or Twitter behind; what’s almost impossible to leave behind is the person that those sites’ algorithmic behaviorism turned you into.

Having recently deleted my Twitter account, I’m officially off social media. And I can tell you, Jacobs is not wrong. The withdrawal symptoms of FOMO (fear of missing out) and a general disorientation about where and what to give my attention to online are powerful forces that make me wonder if I made a poor decision. I’ve been conditioned a) to expect the internet to behave like a social media site, and b) to find the deluge of information that floods a social media feed comforting.

It’s probably too soon for me to make a true assessment of this decision. So, I plan to stick to it for a while. In the meantime, I’ll try to hang around here a little more as I work through the withdrawal symptoms.

No More Quirky Internet

A brief essay from Dan Harvey published in Warren Ellis’ email newsletter (Orbital Operations) this week:

This is why our once quirky, random, charming web has devolved into one colossal attention harvesting mechanism. The Internet is chock full of “commercial junk” in the words of Tim Wu. At the centre of all this are “data factories” and “attention merchants” like Facebook and Twitter. They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising revenue.

Being away from most forms of social media (no Facebook, no Instagram) and attending more to newsletters and blogs has confirmed, for me, Harvey’s observation. Long live the quirky, random, charming web!