The market cap for Facebook is $508.18 billion, a company whose homepage proclaims that its namesake product is “free and always will be.” It’s not often most of us stop to think about where all that value is coming from, but the answer is deceivingly simple: we’re the source. A quote from Andrew Lewis encapsulates this perfectly: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
It’s not just Facebook. Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter and countless others have the same business model. Without you spending time on these apps, there are no customers for their owners to serve ads to. As a result, companies do everything they can to create products designed to draw you back time and time again. And it works – users spend an average of 50 minutes per day on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger alone. What is it that leads us to spend just so much time on these sites?
A lot of it has to do with the way we access them. Everything about your smartphone keeps you coming back for more. Psychology tells us that the most effective way to reinforce a behavior is to provide a reward only some of the time in an unpredictable way. Your phone vibrates at fairly random times, and you’re not immediately aware of how important each notification is. Only some of the time will you actually be excited about what you see. And each time you check your phone to find out, you reinforce that behavior.
The same principle applies to social media. Companies like Facebook are aware of this psychology and have poured their resources into getting and keeping you on their platforms. For example, the first four things on your Facebook feed might not be that interesting, but it’s the fifth hilarious post that keeps you scrolling. There’s always the potential to swipe your finger again and find another high-quality meme, BuzzFeed listicle, or Tasty video.
This is a dangerous state to live in, particular for us as Vanderbilt students. It makes it harder to focus on difficult tasks that aren’t immediately beneficial, which makes a boring essay feel close to impossible to finish. You become increasingly uncomfortable when you’re forced to be bored. If someone confiscated my phone and demanded that I stand in the Rand Bowls line during the peak lunch rush, I’d probably panic. The ease of switching to one of these mind-numbing tasks increases, as does the difficulty of switching back to the work you need to do.
The benefits of social media are fairly obvious, but it’s important that we consider the costs as well.
Most of us will leave Vandy destined for careers that require intense amounts of concentration on demanding cognitive tasks. Frequent, reflexive phone-checking and infinite scrolling damages your attention span, something important whether you’re destined to work as a doctor, consultant, lawyer or teacher. As Cal Newport writes in his book, Deep Work, jobs that value the ability to concentrate intently for extended stretches of time are only increasing in importance. However, our social media usage just isn’t conducive to the kind of deep thinking our work demands from us.
When companies make products designed to be addicting, it should give you pause to think about how you use them and the way you feel they benefit your life. The benefits of social media are fairly obvious, but it’s important that we consider the costs as well. In his article, Attention Shoppers!, Michael Goldhaber argues that the economy of the future will be fueled upon attention, pointing out that it is a truly limited resource you never get any more of. We each need to be conscious of the attention we expend on social media and whether it is really in our best interests.
I’m not suggesting you quit social media, just that you take small steps to change how you use it: question yourself when you reach for your phone, remove all the social media apps you can (if you need them, pull up the website), or restrain your use of these apps to certain places/times of day. Our attention has never been more important, yet so many of the products we use daily actively work against our attention muscle. It’s time we took a deeper look at this problematic reality of our modern lives.
Alex Luckerman is a freshman in Peabody College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .