What they have wrought

Paul Lewis has a sharp, ominous article in this weekend’s Guardian about the misgivings some prominent Silicon Valley inventors are feeling over what they’ve created. Alumni from Google, Twitter, and Facebook worry that the products they helped design and market are having dire side effects, creating a society of compulsive, easily manipulated screen junkies.

Lewis describes how seemingly small design elements ended up having big effects on people’s behavior, from Facebook’s introduction of the Like button (a little dose of “social affirmation” that proved addictive to sender and receiver alike) to the company’s decision to switch its notification icon from the color blue to the color red (turning it from an unobtrusive reminder to an eye-grabbing “alarm signal”). Both the Like button and the red notification icon have become standards in social media apps.

Most illuminating is the story of the downward-swipe gesture used to refresh a feed. It was invented by Loren Brichter for his Tweetie service in 2009 and was adopted by Twitter when the company acquired Tweetie a year later. The “pull-to-refresh” feature has now become ubiquitous. But that raises a question: why does the gesture continue to be used now that it’s easy for social media companies to refresh their feeds automatically? The answer is that the tactile gesture is more seductive. Explains Lewis:

Brichter says he is puzzled by the longevity of the feature. In an era of push notification technology, apps can automatically update content without being nudged by the user. “It could easily retire,” he says. Instead it appears to serve a psychological function: after all, slot machines would be far less addictive if gamblers didn’t get to pull the lever themselves. Brichter prefers another comparison: that it is like the redundant “close door” button in some elevators with automatically closing doors. “People just like to push it.” …

“Smartphones are useful tools,” he says. “But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”

Seemingly benign design tweaks turned into “psychologically manipulative” features because they were introduced into businesses that make their money by encouraging compulsive behavior. The more we poke and stroke the screen, the more data the companies collect and the more ads they dispense. Whatever the Like button started out as, it was quickly recognized to be the engine of a powerful feedback loop through which social media companies could track their users and monetize the resulting data. “There’s no ethics,” former Googler Tristan Harris tells Lewis.

Even the prominent venture capitalist Roger McNamee, an early investor in Google and Facebook, is feeling remorse:

[McNamee] identifies the advent of the smartphone as a turning point, raising the stakes in an arms race for people’s attention. “Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want,” McNamee says. “The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.” …

McNamee chooses his words carefully. “The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences,” he says. “The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.” … But McNamee worries the behemoths he helped build may already be too big to curtail.

Lewis’s article happened to appear on the same day as my Wall Street Journal essay “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds.” It’s a telling coincidence, I think, that the headline on Lewis’s piece is so similar: “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia.” It’s been clear for some time that smartphones and social-media apps are powerful distraction machines. They routinely divide our attention. But the “hijack” metaphor — I took it from Adrian Ward’s article “Supernormal” — implies a phenomenon different and more insidious than simple distraction. To hijack something is to seize control of it from its rightful owner. What’s up for grabs is your mind.