Facebook is attacking us where we are most vulnerable, and it won't stop

Facebook is attacking us where we are most vulnerable, and it won't stop

Facebook is Pavlov and we are his dog, argues McCann Central's digital managing partner.

Our minds, behaviours and belief systems are under attack. 

Modern humans have been on the planet for about 50,000 years during which time we evolved tools, tribes, languages, conventions and cultures.

Twelve years ago, when Facebook evolved out of college campuses shouting "Move Fast & Break Things" its mission was to "connect the world" and 'bring the world closer together".

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 gave Facebook the means to scale its message. And in a little over a decade, one-third of the global population - 2.5 billion people - have "connected" through the platform. 

For most the planet, social media – specifically Facebook – is the Internet. 

And yet, despite the fact that people are more connected than ever, renowned psychotherapist and expert on human relationships, Esther Perel, has observed that we are "facing a modern epidemic of loneliness that is the Number 1 health crisis in America". 

Hands up if you remember the Boz Memo from 2016 - an internal open letter written by Facebook VP, Andrew 'Boz' Bosworth. In it, Boz gave us a glimpse into the true motivations of the platform: "Make no mistake, growth tactics are how we got here," he said. "The best products don’t win. The one everyone uses wins." 

Boz's admission that questionable growth practices are standard practice at Facebook is a confession that they see their users - that almost certainly includes you - as nothing more than a commodity.

"Move Fast & Break Things" has become "behave irresponsibly and hope nobody notices and you don't have to tidy up or pay for the damage".

Through this crack in the veneer of "bringing the world closer together" we finally get to see what Facebook is really about - engineering digital dependency.

We've all been duped into allowing devices and platforms to control our attention, diminish our critical thinking, ruin our relationships, and weaponise our opinions. 

In 2009, when author and futurist Brian Solis was drinking the social media Koolaid and writing about the Social and Attention Economies, he said: "The competition for (your) attention is only intensifying as those who benefit from your awareness venture to attract it when and where it is focused."

Back then, Brian thought this was a good thing that would empower each of us and enable us to monetise our attention.

Today, Brian acknowledges the flaw in his previous reasoning, admitting that the devices and platforms we use "are designed to interrupt and distract us, and our relationship with technology is designed to control us."

In 2017, Sean Parker spoke about how Facebook engineered feedback loops into the platform to push people to post content and receive responses so that Facebook could "consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible".

Why? Because Facebook makes its money by selling micro-targeted access to your attention. And let's be honest, they don't care about bringing the world closer together; they care about profit.

They use tactics like Intermittent Variable Rewards - the same design technique used by slot machine engineers in casinos - to bake-in repeat use.

In a casino, this is how the house always wins.

What we're talking about here are "innovations" such as the Like Button, the Infinite Scroll, the Notification Delay, and the Swipe which build reward-motivated behaviour into all our favourite platforms.

We are being turned into Pavlov’s dogs, earning rewards when we perform a target behaviour. 

Don't believe me?

We respond to whistles (pings/buzzes/notifications); we do tricks for treats (likes/retweets/matches); and we even roll over to get our belly tickled (followbacks).

We've even been trained to treat our sense of self - our most important human trait - as an artefact that we can curate online, creating false constructs about the kind of people we are and the kind of life we live.

When the chief executive of Netflix, Reed Hastings, says their main competitor is sleep, we should be under no misapprehension that our vulnerabilities are being used against us.

Esther Perel says the "quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life". 

While she is talking about relationships between people, I believe that her message is as true for our relationship with technology as it is for our relationship with other members of our species.

We need to recognise if, when and how we are susceptible to manipulation by platforms; we need to understand our relationship with our devices; and - maybe more importantly - our devices' relationship with us.

Platforms can't be bargained with. They can't be reasoned with. They don't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop...

Regulation is coming. 

Come with me if you want to live.

Cynan Clucas is managing partner – digital at McCann Central. This opinion piece was inspired by a talk he gave at Innovation Stories, an Innovation Social event which took place last week. All opinions are the author's own. 

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