Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, recently did a TED Talk on this topic. Harris is now directing his time and attention to helping technology companies consciously and ethically shape human potential (that’s a potentially controversial subject for a different post). He has the inside scoop on what many of us intuit but which most of us do not fully grasp in terms of the severity of the situation. In the present paradigm, the success of any social media platform or search engine depends on its ability to keep your attention and to keep you coming back as frequently as possible.
Many of us are old enough to remember the “don’t touch that dial!” voice that would pop in at the beginning of the ad break on TV shows enthusiastically encouraging us to keep watching, and then midway through the ads, we would be told that the show would be “right back,” if we just stayed tuned. They knew they had a limited amount of time to feed us ads before we would need some encouragement to keep watching. In some ways, this is no different, but the personal data that is collected about you is being used to keep your attention in a far more insidious and manipulative way than it was during “Three’s Company.” Increasingly, it is like having an online avatar that knows you inside and out and can easily convince you to keep scrolling, liking and commenting by customizing the content you see in order to bypass your logical thinking and appeal directly to your emotions. But what emotions are they designed to appeal to? As Harris says in his TED Talk, content that makes you feel calm is a lot less compelling to your emotional mind than content that makes you feel outraged. Anyone feel like you are more frequently outraged these days than you were a few years ago? Let’s just say this, it’s not a coincidence. You are being played. Now, does that cause you outrage? Great, I grabbed your attention. Keep reading.