The machine always wins: what drives our addiction to social media
Richard Seymour has written a superb essay on the destructive powers of social media networks. Such is the power of the “network effects” and such is attraction of the approbation of others that millions of us are spending hours each day writing on social media. In return what are we getting: “In a form of mass casualisation, writers no longer expect to be paid or given employment contracts. What do the platforms offer us, in lieu of a wage? What gets us hooked? Approval, attention, retweets, shares and likes.”
But beyond network effects and our desire for social approval, why exactly are social media platforms like Twitter so powerful? “The Twittering Machine thrives on its speed, informality and interactivity. The protocols of Twitter itself, for example, encourage people to post quickly and often. The feed has an extremely rapid turnover, so that anything posted will, unless it “goes viral”, tend to be quickly forgotten by most followers. The system of followers, @ing and threading encourages sprawling conversations to develop from initial tweets, favouring constant interaction. This is what people like about it, what makes it engaging: it is like texting, but in a public, collective context.”
Furthermore, as with financial options, Twitter thrives on chaos. “The regular sweet spot sought after is a brief period of ecstatic collective frenzy around any given topic. It doesn’t particularly matter to the platforms what the frenzy is about: the point is to generate data, one of the most profitable raw materials yet discovered. As in the financial markets, volatility adds value. The more chaos, the better.”
The addiction that social media platforms generate, says the author, is akin to a gambler’s craving for the next roll of the dice. “Every gambler trusts in a few abstract symbols – the dots on a dice, numerals, suits, red or black, the graphemes on a fruit machine – to tell them who they are. In most cases, the answer is brutal and swift: you are a loser and you are going home with nothing. The true gambler takes a perverse joy in anteing up, putting their whole being at stake. On social media, you scratch out a few words, a few symbols, and press send, rolling the dice. The internet will tell you who you are and what your destiny is through arithmetic likes, shares and comments.”
In the casino the addicts gamble for money. On social media, the addicts vie with each other for attention. “Going viral, or trending, is the equivalent of a windfall. But sometimes, winning is the worst thing that can happen. The temperate climate of likes and approval is apt to break, lightning-quick, into sudden storms of fury and disapproval.”
As we get more entrenched in our make believe world of social media, it gets increasingly hard to maintain a real sense of perspective about the outside world: “The sense of dropping out of time is common to many addictions. As one former gambling addict puts it: “All I can remember is living in a trance for four years.” Schüll calls it the “machine zone”, where ordinary reality is “suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process”. For many addicts, the idea of facing the normal flow of time is unbearably depressing. Marc Lewis, a neuroscientist and former heroin addict, describes how even after kicking the drug, he couldn’t face “a day without a change of state”.
The Twittering Machine, as a wholly designed operant conditioning chamber, needs none of the expedients of the casino or opium den. The user has already dropped out of work, a boring lunch or an anxious social situation to enter into a different, timeless zone…
The experience of platform users, on the other hand, is organised in a trance-like flow. The user is plunged into a stream of real-time information and disciplined to stay constantly ahead of it. Twitter highlights not the time and date of posts, but their age and thus currency: 4m, or 12h, as the case may be.
The ensuing trance-like state, according to the digital theorist David Berry, is remarkably similar to what in early stock markets was called the “ticker trance”. Financial speculators would become absorbed in watching the signals conveyed on stock market ticker tape, vigilant to every minute variation in a real-time flow.”
The author then makes a really interesting point regarding how social media is the real convergence of financial markets and tech: “And there is a logical convergence between financialisation and tech. The financial sector is the most computerised sector of capitalism, and the use of software for trading has resulted in numerous efforts to “game the system” – as in May 2010, when a trader’s use of algorithms to repeatedly spoof bets against the market some 19,000 times briefly caused a trillion-dollar crash.”
Like alcoholism and like gambling, social media is destroying careers, families and lives: “The complaints are almost always the same: users end up constantly distracted, unproductive, anxious, needy and depressed – yet also curiously susceptible to advertising. Patrick Garratt wrote of his social media addiction causing a “desperate, hollow pressure of waste” in his working life as a journalist. Social-media addiction has been linked, repeatedly, to increased depression: interaction with the platforms correlates with a major decline in mental health, while increased screen time (or “time on device”) may be contributing to a recent surge in teen suicides.”