[The research, writing, and editing of this post was part of an undergraduate project undertaken for a Rutgers course, “Cultural History of Now” in 2021. The author’s bio follows the post.]
Though many do not realize it, Facebook’s initial purpose was not to create a social network. As described in Vox, Mark Zuckerberg’s first project, Facemash, asked users to vote on the attractiveness of Harvard students using online dorm directories (“facebooks”) as data. Eventually, Facebook became a media platform whose profits primarily come from advertising that mines users’ data for the purpose of “targeting” susceptible buyers. To make this business model more profitable, many social media companies favor the kind of content that keeps readers engaged so as to gather more data and sell more advertising. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian about her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), Shoshana Zuboff uses the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the condition that enables tech corporations to affect human behavior. She describes how personal data is used “not only to predict [people’s] behavior but also to influence and modify it” (n.p.).
To some degree, the infiltration of social media into our everyday lives has created social media addicts. Similar to those who misuse drugs, social media addicts can experience altering moods, withdrawal symptoms, and relationship conflicts. Like the presence of irresistible chemicals and preservatives in junk food, social media platforms embed compelling components: endless scrolls, colorful visuals, enticing content, and mechanisms (such as “like” buttons or retweets).
An Addiction Center webpage by Jena Hilliard explains how social media platforms provide “dopamine-inducing social environments” that “produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs” (n.p.). The problem occurs when individuals use these sites to combat stress, isolation, and depression. To encourage users to stay online, sites include an almost unlimited amount of content, make recommendations, and post notifications (which alert individuals when certain accounts have made a social media post). Corporations profit from social media addiction because, as Zuboff explains, it enables them to collect more data and sell more ads. In effect, corporations are incentivized to promote social media addiction.
Social media addiction is considered a desirable or at least normal outcome for some companies. Author and former startup employee, Anna Wiener, reflects on her workplace environment during the rise of tech startups in 2012-2016. In her article, Wiener describes how the analytics startup she worked for released a feature known as “Addiction,” which “quantified [the] obsession” of making users visit applications multiple times a day. Aside from its ironic name, “Addiction” presented patterns of user engagement, which exemplified the goal of various companies to normalize prolonged use of digital platforms. Wiener recalls her colleagues “treat[ing] technology addiction as though it were inevitable” (n.p.). This nonchalant attitude toward the negative impacts of social media addiction may explain why companies continue to devise new incentives for increased social media usage. For example, Snapchat and Instagram have implemented features (Spotlight for the former and Reels for the latter) which mimic TikTok’s addictive endless scrolling. TikTok, however, occasionally shows its awareness of addiction by featuring a video encouraging a break from the app, which, ironically, users can easily scroll past.
The human dependency on technology is the subject of science fiction films such as Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), which tells the story of a lonely man, Theodore, who becomes obsessed with Samantha, his virtual assistant. The film dramatizes the reliance on technology to the point where relationships with technological devices seem to be fulfilling basic human needs. Even before Theodore downloads Samantha, his life is surrounded by various pieces of technology: holographic video games, voice-activated writing technology, and an earpiece connecting to the digital world. Though the movie is now a decade old, Her incorporates technology into a human lifestyle by portraying seamless devices that do not require a user’s touch. For instance, Theodore’s earpiece allows him to communicate with his computer about events and updates. In this universe, Theodore’s love for Samantha takes the form of technological dependence. His life revolves around using voice recognition software to complete almost every task. From writing greeting cards for his job, to gaming in his leisure time, technology mediates every aspect of Theodore’s daily life.
Though Her is a fictional work, social media addiction is all too real. I interviewed Audrey, a 24-year-old accounting major, now a sales worker, who had a relationship with a social media addict. She expressed how her partner’s toxic behaviors caused turbulence and insecurity in their relationship. She felt as if she “had to present [her]self better for his social media” profile “but then he wouldn’t even use anything with [her] in it.” Her partner’s preoccupation with curating the “perfect” social media presence led him to exclude her from photos he shared on social media, which gave rise to insecurities, self-consciousness, and anger in their relationship (Audrey L. personal communication, December 16, 2021). Moreover, she stated he “would also get super upset if [she] didn’t post about him in a positive way,” which shows that social media addiction affects other individuals, not just the addicted person (Audrey L. personal communication, December 16, 2021).
Moreover, Ishika, a third-year Psychology major at Rider University, also believes that addictive social media has become almost normal. “The companies/corporations who create these apps,” she told me, “and the ‘influencers’ who benefit from it, encourage this media behavior” (Ishika M. personal communication, December 16, 2021). The work of social media influencers consists of staying active online. But Ishika believes that individuals need to have some self-discipline in order to control their addictions” (Ishika M. personal communication, December 16, 2021). Evidently, the line between being responsible for instigating addiction and for succumbing to corporations’ tactics is blurry. Even though surveillance capitalism drives platforms to keep their users hooked, users can choose to set boundaries for themselves. On the other hand, some users find it difficult to control their usage. That suggests that individual control is not sufficient to prevent corporations from taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities.
The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University has proposed some potential solutions through its Institute for Rebooting Social Media. A BBC article describes how the institute engages in research development to address social media issues (misinformation, privacy, bullying, etc.) through research, programming, and education. This is a potential way to make the digital space more safe and friendly. However, these platforms were designed to be addictive–contrary to the “Design Justice Network Principles” that author Sasha Costanza-Chock describes in Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. According to the ninth principle, design should “work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other” (7).
While social platforms are often said to connect individuals, we have seen how they can instead isolate people and even complicate relationships. They also draw people further away from nature. Individuals are often “plugged in” to the digital world through news outlets and headlines, yet disconnected from the luscious greenery of their community park.
At the end of the day, humans do want to be connected to one another. So, when social media begins to alienate users from others–doing the exact opposite of its seeming purpose–it can be difficult for users to let go of social media as a tool for happy socializing. This is the message that Jonze’s Her really drives home. For example, Samantha fills a void in Theodore’s life by connecting with him on a deeper level. However, Theodore forms a dependency on a seemingly “perfect” piece of technology that was created to cater to his needs and wants. Reality settles in for Theodore as he starts to feel possessive of Samantha. Ultimately, he lets go of his addiction to Samantha–and is better for it.
Yashi Srivastava is a sophomore at Rutgers University studying Information Technology & Informatics. She is also passionate about tobacco prevention in the adolescent population. She is interested in technology and public health and aims to pursue a career in web design to enhance her digital advocacy.