Buyer Beware: The Business Model Is Addiction
Let’s begin this book review by dashing your hopes. Adam Alter’s excellent and very worthwhile read, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, is messy and won’t cure your online addictions. It’s also not a blueprint that will help you design more addictive games, apps, and online experiences.
Alter’s book might not even muffle that gnawing desire to go check your social media, right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Sometimes you just need to bask for a moment in the warm glow of social approval.
Feel better? If you got a few likes and comments, you probably do. If not, you may feel worse. Either way, a quick game of Candy Crush could help you refocus your attention on the task at hand: Reading this blog post.
Because this book is important. It’s a brainstorm of useful ideas and observations about our creeping digital addictions. It also shows how programmers and designers—deliberately or not—manipulate our psyche to keep our attention.
Is the Internet Really Addictive?
That tablet isn’t turned even on, but the Shutterstock model still prefers it to his Hot Wheels collection. Ahem.
From a scientific standpoint, Alter probably fails to prove that Internet addiction is real. Gambling remains the only behavioral disorder recognized as a legitimate addiction, on par with alcoholism. The author does cite several studies and statistics supporting his thesis, but they’re not really convincing.
But we all know, deep down, that Alter is correct. Too many of us have an urge to click that website, despite our resolve to spend less time there and more with friends, family, exercise, work, or chores. As a species, we spend more time looking at screens with each passing year. Often, we feel terrible about it.
Alter begins with questions that would normally be posed to a substance addict. How often do you stay online longer than intended? Do others complain about the amount of time you’re online? How often are you online when there are real-world tasks that need to be completed? And so forth.
If you’re like me, many of your answers would be 4s (often) and 5s (always).
“Addictions are damaging because they crowd out other essential pursuits, from work and play to basic hygiene and social interaction,” says Alter. A behavior becomes an addiction, for the purposes of this book, when you realize that you are suffering in real life (IRL) because you keep choosing to spend your leisure time staring at a screen.
But what if you are going to make an important political post, learn a new life hack, or create a hilarious new meme to entertain your friends?
Alter says, “Where substance addictions are nakedly destructive, behavioral addictions are quietly destructive acts wrapped in cloaks of creation.”
To compound the ambiguity of internet addiction, most of us might not be able to quit cold turkey. Our work and social lives depend on the Internet. It’s all about managing our behavioral addictions, which can be a more difficult challenge than simply quitting—similar to someone who has been obese or anorexic.
What we need to find is a healthy amount of time to be online. Since the technology is so new, however, no one really knows how much time that would be.
Making Alter’s Brainstorm Work for You
While this book tries to offer a cohesive narrative, it doesn’t quite hold together. If you treat this book as a collection of observations and ideas about online addictions, it’s a better read. Some will help you reclaim your life, others not so much.
Take, for example, “stopping cues.” Alter points out, in his Ted Talk, that the Internet has all but erased them. Television shows no longer end after an hour. You aren’t done with the news when you finish the paper. Work doesn’t end when you go home for the evening. Videogames never have clear-cut endings. The party on Facebook never ends. And that’s my own particular addiction.
Without stopping cues, users can be prompted to develop “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO). The way to end a FOMO-related anxiety attack is simple, just log back on. Download the app to your smartphone, which is always right there, and you’ll never be more than a click away from all the friends you’ve ever made in your life.
Alter’s Ted Talk ends after about nine minutes, so feel free to check it out.
The final chapters of Alter’s book offer suggestions for managing our Internet overuse, such as using blockers and time tracker apps. Those particular tactics seemed more frustrating than effective for someone like me. So, I made a much simpler change—I started logging out of Facebook each time that I used it. I also took the Facebook app off my phone, which means I stop whenever I’m away from my laptop.
Those two changes created concrete stopping cues for me. They also exploited another of Alter’s cognitive hacks: Anything you opt into (rather than out of) tends to be less addictive. In his example, countries that ask you to opt out of organ donation (rather than into it, like the USA and UK) have much higher rates of donation. I now have to opt in every time I open Facebook, which did cut my use.
My new stopping cues didn’t quell my desire to check Facebook, however. Then I read Alter’s explanation of how videogame designers use the Zeigarnik effect. If you leave a task unfinished, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. It’s not just about games: shopping sites send you reminders about what’s in your cart, Netflix cues up the next episode immediately after a cliffhanger.
I realized that when I left a provocative post on Facebook, I was using the Zeigarnik effect against myself. The cliffhanger was whether or not I would get likes and comments. So I stopped posting controversial items that invited discussion. The result is that I think about Facebook less, and I’m usually disappointed when I do log on, because I haven’t gotten any notifications.
Those tactics might not work for you, but I bet Alter has other ideas that can help you identify and address your own issues in this brave new world of online addictions.
Built to Appeal
When we say something is “designed to be addictive,” that’s projecting the worst possible motive on the designers. But, all companies need to make money. Online companies make money by engaging customers.
“The problem isn’t that people lack willpower,” says Tristan Harris, a design ethicist. “It’s that there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”
While I was reading Alter’s book, Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, went on the record saying that addiction had been their goal from the get-go.
So it’s not entirely my fault that I spent two hours on Facebook yesterday?
“The thought process that went into building these applications… was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while,” Parker explained. “It’s a social validation feedback loop. You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
Alter believes that Facebook is the rule, not the exception. There are games and apps using tactics that gambling designers have deliberately employed for centuries. Take, for example, “near win.” In real-world challenges, like hunting or sports, a near win means that you’re improving, and with hard work, will achieve your goal. Slot machine and scratch off ticket designers exploit this by displaying a few numbers of a winning combination, before disappointing the player with the final reveal.
Music, omnipresent in Las Vegas casinos, is also used to keep you in the “flow” of a game when you do reach a natural stopping cue, so you’ll start another round. Fitbit gamifies your exercise routine so you’ll complete those 10,000 steps—while wearing their product. MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, let you know when your friends need you, so you’ll log on even when you could use a good night’s sleep.
That’s just a taste of Alter’s research. If you’re interested, there’s so much more.
Despite some organizational and scientific weaknesses, this brilliant little book is worth reading. It can open your eyes to the neuroscience behind the design of some your favorite online pastimes. Although Alter alone couldn’t slice through the Gordian Knot of our newest human failing, he has identified some of the tools we’ll need to unravel it.