Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. He is also the author of a new book, “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.” I asked him questions about the book.
HF: Your book suggests that Facebook uses the same kinds of techniques to keep you coming back as a casino does. What does this mean?
SV: Facebook engineers were for many years influenced by a strain of thought that emerged from Stanford University, where in the early 2000s scholars of human-computer interaction, design and behavioral economics were promoting the idea that games could generate “stickiness” among users, giving users just enough positive feedback to want to return to the game but deny users enough pleasure so that they don’t get satiated. As technology consultant Nir Eyal explains in his revealing and, frankly, frightening book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” this idea spread quickly through Silicon Valley, uniting game designers, application engineers, advertising professionals and marketing executives.
Facebook played this game better than most. It’s perfectly designed, like a fruit machine in a casino, to give us a tiny sliver of pleasure when we use it and introduce a small measure of anxiety when we do not use it. A Facebook user says, “What am I missing out on? Did anyone ‘like’ my joke?” A casino patron says, “I wonder if THIS is my lucky moment or lucky pull of the lever.”
HF: For Facebook’s model to work, you suggest that users can’t have real control over their personal information. Why is this so, and what consequences does it have for politics?
SV: From Facebook’s point of view, users shouldn’t know all the ways that Facebook uses and distributes their basic data and records of interactions for two reasons. One, it’s just too vast a collection of users; two, users might get turned off if their experience on the surface of Facebook — all the “likes,” clicks, videos, comments and messages — [is] interrupted by the reality of what’s behind the wizard’s curtain. So Facebook keeps assuring us we “have control” of our information. But that’s only limited to superficial control over the audiences within Facebook to which we share posts.
Read the full piece at The Washington Post.