Why Facebook is so addictive: the Like button

How did Facebook destroy the audience for the public Internet? Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked is a good place to start looking for answers:

Thirty-seven years after Zeiler published his results [on pigeons, in 1971], a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans. Facebook has the power to run human experiments on an unprecedented scale. The site already had two hundred million users at the time—a number that would triple over the next three years. 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. (Facebook has since introduced other feedback buttons, so you’re able to communicate more complex emotions than simple liking.) 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 (from the Winklevoss twins, now Bitcoin billionaires), but it didn’t become a super-addictive idea until the Like button, according to the author of this book. 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.”

How can people break free of Facebook addiction? The authors suggest saying “I don’t use Facebook” rather than “I can’t use Facebook,” but mostly putting a dog’s shock collar on yourself: Pavlok. Another idea is to use Facebook through an interface that hides all of the metrics: a Demetricator.

How powerful is gamification?

[Ian] Bogost demonstrated the power of gamification with a social media game called Cow Clicker. He designed Cow Clicker to mimic similar games, like FarmVille, which had dominated Facebook for many months. The game’s objective was simple: click your cow during critical periods and you’ll earn virtual currency known as mooney. Cow Clicker was supposed to satirize gamification, but it was a smash hit. Tens of thousands of users downloaded the game, and instead of playing once or twice, they played for days on end. At one point, a computer science professor sat atop the leaderboard with a hundred thousand mooney. Bogost updated the game with new features, adding awards for reaching certain milestones (such as the Golden Cowbell for one hundred thousand clicks), and introducing an oil-coated cow to commemorate the BP oil spill. He claimed that Cow Clicker’s success was a surprise, but really it embodied many of the traits that made other games addictive: Werbach and Hunter’s points, badges, and levels.

… and it will only get worse:

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.

More: read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

4 thoughts on “Why Facebook is so addictive: the Like button

  1. Facebook is the new Philip Morris.

    The question is whether it follows the same ark over time:
    – all the cool celebrities use it, you can be cool too!
    – welp, maybe kids shouldn’t use it since it damages their brains (already proved)
    – ban advertising using facebook?
    – perhaps a Pigouvian tax to discourage social media overuse?
    – social media free public spaces!

  2. I have had a Facebook account for 10 years, but never clicked a Like button. I guess I am not typical.

  3. Don’t think it’s the like button as much as the only captive audience most of us will ever have. The average blog post, gootube video & tweet will never be seen by anyone, but the average Facebook post has a good chance of being seen by at least 1.

Comments are closed.