The more you use a particular social media platform, the more addicting that platform becomes – not just in general, but specifically for you.
Selling addicting products like tobacco and alcohol is obviously not new. And companies that deal in addiction have long raised ethical concerns.
Recently, social media addiction has garnered critical attention in several articles, books, TED lectures, and documentaries. But do social media companies raise unique ethical questions that aren’t raised by older, better-known, and addicting companies?
In fact, social media companies differ from tobacco and alcohol companies in one important way: the way they promote their users’ addiction is ethically distinctive. The more you use a particular social media platform, the more addicting that platform becomes – not just in general, but specifically for you.
Social media companies customize their platforms for each user and use the data provided by that user in a way that increases the platform’s addictiveness for that user. This is because social media companies use adaptive algorithms that, as technologist Jaron Lanier puts it, “make small changes to themselves for better results,” where “better” is understood as more engaging and therefore more profitable . As a result, it triggers an addictive feedback loop.
To understand why this is problematic, consider this thought experiment:
On the way to work, stop at a coffee shop for a cup of coffee. As soon as you leave without you noticing, a member of staff will take your mug out of the trash, zip it up and send it to a lab. The lab processes the traces of saliva you left on the mug to develop a better understanding of the aspects of your biology that are contributing to making you addicted to coffee. The next morning, the café tweaked its recipe and made the coffee a little more addicting, especially for you.
The café repeats this process after each visit. You will gradually get more and more information about your biology in relation to addiction and eventually you will come across a cup of coffee that you find irresistible. Now you are heavily dependent on their product and have helped them achieve this result.
In such a situation you would have a right to complain. Even if you were aware of the mildly addictive potential of coffee before buying your first mug from this store, it doesn’t mean you agreed to serve up an addicting cup of coffee. Nor does it mean you are on board if inadvertently used in the coffee shop’s scheme to be addicting the product for you.
Something similar happens with social media. When you use a social media platform, their adaptive algorithms help make the platform addicting for you (and for other people whose algorithms are deemed relevant similar to you). Even if you have voluntarily signed up to use a particular social media company’s platform (maybe even aware of its addictive potential), that doesn’t mean you volunteered to help the company identify the platform’s addictive potential for you to increase.
But isn’t it true of all addictions that the more you do it, the more addictive you become? The more you usually drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, the more addicted you will become to any of these substances. And companies that sell addictive products have long had marketing and promotional strategies in place that aim to get more people to consume more of their products.
However, the point is not just comparable to increased tobacco use, which leads to increased nicotine addiction, nor to cigarette companies who advertise to encourage their customers to smoke more. The strategy of social media companies is categorically different: instead, it resembles a tobacco company that increases the amount of nicotine in a particular cigarette, thereby increasing the addictive potential of the cigarette itself. The more you use the social media platform, the more addictive the platform becomes.
Social media companies use you to get addicted to their platforms. You are not wondering if you want to be used against yourself in this way. There is a certain audacity to it: “We will not only make our platforms addicting for you, but also get you to help us on this path.”
The views expressed in this article are from the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.