We’re All Guinea Pigs: The Hidden Experiments of Corporate Websites

What Makes You Click

VPRO (2016)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the vast amount of A/B design testing* that websites subject us to without our knowledge.

The psychological science behind “conversion optimization” (ie increasing the money we spend online) is becoming increasingly advanced. As “online persuaders” explain to filmmakers, most of us are totally unaware of specific design features that lead us to stay longer and spend more money on specific websites.

For example, most of us find pop-ads extremely irritating. Nevertheless studies show they consistently increase on-line sales by 10-15%.

Facebook constantly reconfigures the design of their newsfeed to increase dopamine surges (dopamine is the main neurotransmitter associated with stimulant addiction) in the brains of their users. Theoretically the pleasurable feelings this produces helps keep visitors on their site longer.  In fact, one psychologist compares the effect Facebook and Twitter invoke to the feeling gambling addicts describe of “being in the zone .”

The film, produced before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica** scandal erupted in early 2018, also discusses the on-line behavioral research the Obama campaign used in 2012 to influence voter behavior.

Several researchers seriously question the ethics of using hidden techniques to persuade Internet users to act against their own best interests. Some have joined together in the Time Well Spent movement to press for stronger government regulation. They worry that wide uptake of artificial intelligence technology could make it virtually impossible to audit persuasion strategems that operate below the level of human consciousness.


*A/B testing relies on randomized experiments with two variants, A and B. It serves to test a subject’s response to variant A against variant B to determine which of the two variants is more effective.

**In early 2018, we learned that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data from millions of Facebook profiles without users’ consent and used it to target them for 2016 election advertising.

Plugged In: The True Toxicity of Social Media

Plugged In: The True Toxicity of Social Media

Directed by Richard Grannon (2018)

Film Review

This documentary examines the apparent link between widespread social media addiction and the spike in suicide rates among teens under 17. Depression has increased 70% over the last decade, with suicide rates increasing by 50% in girls and 30% in boys. In the same period, hospital admissions for eating disorders have doubled. This appears to relate to pervasive social media emphasis on personal appearance and staying thin.

The filmmakers interview pediatricians, psychologists, social media activists and teen victims of cyberbullying. They also examine whistleblower claims about Facebook deliberately designing platforms to produce the same dopamine* triggers that mediate addiction. The obvious goal is to create compulsive desire to spend more and more on Facebook, as well as Instagram and WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook). The more time you spend on Facebook, the more ads you see and the more profit you generate

Adults who regularly interact with teens will only be too aware of their constantly pinging smartphones. In many cases, they seem incapable of giving real life interactions their full attention. Psychologists worry we are setting up a whole generation to transition to adulthood with defective social skills.

The film also explores the tendency of these platforms to reinforce personal narcissism and of all social media platforms to reinforce confrontation, aggression and hate speech.

I was surprised to learn that as of 2018, 60% of all social media posts were selfies. The teens interviewed reveal their selfie posts are rewarded with more likes than any other posts. At the same time, they report problems with chronically low self-esteem for failing to measure up to their friend’s posts.

While not mentioned in the film, I have had concerns for several years now that social media addiction may actually be a gateway drug – setting young people up for other dopamine-related addictions (amphetamines, cocaine, heroine, and nicotine). The deadly opiate addiction currently plaguing the US and other developed countries may be no coincidence.

At number of addiction specialists seem to agree with me:

Drug Addiction Relating Topics Social Media

Social Media The Gateway Drug

Social Media Addiction

 


*Dopamine is neurotransmitter that stimulates brain pleasure centers. Rats wired up to self-administer dopamine to their brain pleasure centers will keep pressing the lever until they drop dead from starvation and dehydration.