Why Facebook is so addictive: the Like button

Why Facebook is so addictive: the Like button, by Philip Greenspun.

Quotes below are from Alter’s book:

Facebook has the power to run human experiments on an unprecedented scale. …

The experiment took the form of a deceptively simple new feature called a “like” button. Anyone who has used Facebook knows how the button works: instead of wondering what other people think of your photos and status updates, you get real-time feedback as they click (or don’t click) a little blue-and-white thumbs-up button beneath whatever you post. …

It’s hard to exaggerate how much the “like” button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeiler’s pigeons. Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link, or status update. A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed. Like pigeons, we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed.

Facebook was a great idea, but it didn’t become a super-addictive idea until the Like button. Why do people love this so much?

Social confirmation, or seeing the world as others see it, is a marker that you belong to a group of like-minded people. In evolutionary terms, group members tended to survive while loners were picked off, one by one, so discovering that you’re a lot like other people is deeply reassuring. When people are deprived of these bonds, they experience a form of pain so severe that it’s sometimes called “the social death penalty.”

Adding unpredictable feedback, points for achievement, badges and levels is called gamification. It’s addictive because it delivers small dopamine hits in your brain.

Behavioral addiction is still in its infancy, and there’s a good chance we’re still at base camp, far below the peak. Truly immersive experiences, like virtual reality devices, have not yet gone mainstream. In ten years, when all of us own a pair of virtual reality goggles, what’s to keep us tethered to the real world? If human relationships suffer in the face of smartphones and tablets, how are they going to withstand the tide of immersive virtual reality experiences? Facebook is barely a decade old, and Instagram is half that; in ten years, a host of new platforms will make Facebook and Instagram seem like ancient curiosities.

hat-tip Matthew