Social media has changed our lives irreversibly. The innocence of sharing photos with family and friends; announcing some of life’s biggest moments; publicising local events; publicising absolutely anything … social media has become one of the primary ways we communicate as a modern society.
As of 2019, the number of internet users worldwide is 4.38 billion, and the number of those internet users engaging on social media is 3.484 billion, up 9% year-on-year. Another industry booming, the engagement seen in the world of gambling has risen to a mammoth $25.69 billion—partially down to growth in online gambling, and particularly the rise of virtual one-armed bandits; from online slot games UK all the way to the pokies of Australia.
One may struggle to see the connection between social media’s spiralling omnipresence and a practice that dates back to the Paleolithic period, before written history began, but social media has recently faced criticism for its addictive qualities and parallels with slots. Many users, including some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech players, have decided to curb their time on social media, even going so far as to install apps to control their usage. Those not as switched on, however, are facing increasing addiction to their devices.
Justin Rosenstein—co-founder of software company Asana and former employee of both Google and Facebook—is part of a growing number of individuals speaking out on the addictive nature of social media and the way it has the potential to limit our productivity. Rosenstein is an expert in the field—he was after all the Facebook engineer who created the same ‘like’ button that he now avoids pressing.
“Everyone is distracted,” says Rosenstein. “All of the time. One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before.”
The advent of the ‘pull to refresh’.
One of the Silicon Valley heavyweights joining Rosenstein in his critique of social media is Tristan Harris. Formerly a design ethicist at Google, Harris is the director and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology as well as the cofounder of the Time Well Spent movement. He’s coined the phrase ‘human downgrading’; a term that suggests that computers are actually transforming people’s lives for the worse. In 2016, he was described by The Atlantic as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.”
Harris believes that the design of social media applications apply some of the same principles that can make other forms of entertainment, like gambling, exceedingly alluring. He has previously called smartphones the ‘slot machine in your pocket’ and is campaigning for stronger ethics in Silicon Valley, as well as the tech industry more generally.
“Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” he says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.” What slot machines and social media share are variable rewards.
This feeds into the ‘pull to refresh’ function. Every time we pull down to refresh our timeline—whether that’s on Facebook, Twitter or even by email—we don’t know what we’ll discover. That could be a new email from work, lots of surprising ‘likes’ or even disappointment should there be nothing fresh to excite us. The downward-pull action, created by designer Loren Brichter, has been emulated across many different apps, and its ubiquity has become intuitive for its users. Being drawn into what’s called ‘ludic loops’—where a user is unsure whether they’ll receive feedback (or in the case of a slot machine, cash rewards) following anticipation—is what keeps us hooked. Or, as Harris says: pulling the lever.
“You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize) or nothing,” says the Silicon Valley activist.
Quick reward psychology is nothing new. American psychologist B. F. Skinner at Harvard University was a pioneer of the concept. His theory of Operant Conditioning, which he first made reference to in 1938, is a method of learning that occurs through punishments and rewards for behaviour. What it comes down to is our conditioned associations between a particular behaviour, like pulling a lever on a slot machine, and its consequence: winning rewards. It’s what makes entertainment like gambling, and new forms of technology, like social media, so alluring; activities we want to come back to, again and again.
All fun and games?
The most simple way of explaining the deep psychology behind users of slot machines, especially online slot games, is that they’re fun to play. The success of the industry speaks for itself. The UK Gambling Commission report shows a massive 12.8% increase in the online gambling sector, accounting for £5.3 billion in Gross Gambling Yield (GGY) during the year. During 2016, online slot machine style games alone generated £1.8 billion in the UK. It’s one of the largest revenue generators of the sector and continues to grow year-on-year.
That the industry has become so lucrative has had many benefits for the players who enjoy online slots. The more income generated by the slots, the more people want to get a part of the action. Including game developers, publishers and brands. The saturation of the market has resulted in many advancements in game technology. Newer, more exciting games are being published every week as game companies compete in the marketplace. And with developments like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), online slots are continuously evolving as they become more and more entertaining for the people who access and enjoy them.
The success of the industry—and the fun it elicits for its many players around the world—makes it a fine example for other sectors to try and replicate. That many of the techniques used to entice people to play online slots are being used by social media companies makes sense: they know a good model when they see it.
Where casinos have used techniques like air filtration and a lack of natural light to keep their gamblers in a limbo-like state, online gambling has allowed users to dip in and out of gaming anywhere, at any time of the day, and social media shares this perma-connection. Smartphones guide us out of any situation we don’t want to be in, it negates awkward silences, deletes boredom at the source. We are bombarded with stimuli and all of the techniques learnt from the world of gambling keep us coming back for more.
Of course to be ‘an addict’ requires a predilection to addiction, it requires pain that cannot be coped with another way, not everyone will become addicted. But this doesn’t mean that Silicon Valley shouldn’t look at the techniques it employs. “The ultimate freedom is a free mind,” says Tristan Harris, “and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely. We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigour as privacy and other digital rights.”
Just think next time you ‘pull the lever’: do you really need those likes?