Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Please don't 'like' this post.

Facebook is a ubiquitous tool, which means it has the power to manufacture ubiquitous consent. All of the evidence to date suggests that it's using this power for the worst possible motive: profit. 

Slaves to the Mind

What is it about Facebook that turns seemingly-sane people into juvenile delinquents, sociopaths, cheese balls and pet-fetishists? People who you once thought were intellectual suddenly develop a thing for YouTube videos of cats talking. People who you once thought of as politically correct develop a penchant for 'liking' sexist crap dredged up from the bowels of the 'net. People who you once found deep and mysterious reveal a tragic affinity for games that were clearly designed for a three year old.

Watching the people that we know interacting on Facebook can be reminiscent of watching one's colleagues at an office Christmas party that's about to close its doors; the way that they all suddenly seem willing to chat up the bartender, tell stupid jokes to get the boss's attention and show naked photos of their lovers (or their dogs and cats) to the waiter... all in the hope of getting another round of free drinks and food. Bu,t it's not mince pies and beer that drive Facebook user to share and bare their most shocking, hilarious, pathetic (or just plain annoying) facets of daily life: it's the free dopamine and serotonin boost you get. And Facebook's reward is a harvest of personal details from us all. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that rewards seeking behaviour with a sense of exhileration. It's an inbuilt learning mechanism that precedes emotion and supersedes thought, ensuring that we learn what we need to do to survive no matter what. As one writer at The Cerebral Cortex blog puts it:

"[When] the person first realizes that a specific reward occurs after an event, his [dopamine] neurons fire based on their forecast of when the reward will be given. These neurons are crucial in learning new processes because they fire as they practice their prediction skills and as the learning is acquired."

In the same article, the author describes an experiment which helped establish the link between dopaminergic surges and unexpected 'rewards', carried out by Dr. Wolfram Schultz at the University of Cambridge, 1997:

"In the experiment a light was flashed, several moments passed, and then drips of apple juice were fed to the monkey. Schultz observed the monkey’s neuronal response during the period of time in between the flash of light and the apple juice treat. Schultz discovered the dopamine response [occurred] in the monkeys immediately after he flashed the light. In this case, the monkeys’ dopaminergic neurons were predicting when the treat would be received."

That seems pretty self-evident: getting an enjoyable reward = happy feelings. But because dopamine is a learning chemical, rewarding us for any new, meaningful habits we adopt, its effects tend to fade after a while, if the pattern stays the same. That's our brain telling us that there's nothing new to learn here, anymore. Writes Schultz, "Over time, this dopamine response decreased. But when the monkeys found apple juice that was not preceded by a flash of light, their dopaminergic neurons were excited again."

How excited, you ask?

"The unpredictability and surprise of the reward accounted for a dopamine response that was three to four times greater than the response that occurred during the [initial] learning period. The monkeys thus experienced far more pleasure when the apple juice reward arrived at an unpredicted [sic] time than when it arrived on schedule right after the flash of light."

Strangely, that reminds this writer of a certain, small red box that she can see in the top left hand corner of her screen every time she checks Facebook, and its ever-changing tally of 'notifications'. And I'm not the only one that's made the connection:

"Facebook’s notification system may be synonymous to the randomly occurring apple juice reward," the author of The Cerebral Cortex writes. "As Facebook users, we log onto the site to check for notifications. Often times, our guesses are just as inaccurate as the monkey’s random predictions for the apple juice reward. It is an exciting feeling to check for Facebook notifications, but the gratification from actually receiving a notification is always greatest."

And this reaction kicks into overdrive when a greater array of learning possibilities are available. "It is possible for the dopamine system to keep saying 'more more more', seeking even when we have found the [original] information," writes Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D, a contributor at Psychology Today. "Research also shows that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in," she adds. Basically, when there's an unlimited supply of new stuff to be learned, it goes kinda crazy - and therefore, by extension, so can we. 

Dopamine itself has had all sorts of mud slung at it by neuro-experts who blame the neurotransmitter for nearly all addictions. But, it isn't all the dopamine's fault: the drug dealers and Facebook designers who exploit it for personal profit also share the blame.

When E.B Boyd of the Fast Company met with the Facebook design team last year, she summed up their current design strategy this way: "Facebook doesn't just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions." Boyd went on to describe how, "A sticky note with the word ['serotonin'] scrawled on it is tacked on the wall of a design meeting". Design team manager, Julie Zhuo, explained why it was there, "[Serotonin is] our term for those little moments of delight you get on Facebook". According to Chris Cox, the Vice President of Product at Facebook, "It's the science of things you can't reason about, that you just feel." Anyone looking for evidence that emotional manipulation is the endgame of Facebook's interface design need look no farther than the designers themselves.

"It wants you to have the same feelings--the positive ones at least--that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person," summarizes Boyd. And if the fact that people are having those feelings for an automated interface, rather than for the people themselves, has led to addiction and alienation from real friends & family, then who really cares? All that matters is that it sells.

Yet while serotonin may be responsible for the feeling of happiness a person gets when they've found what they want, what motivates them to seek it out is dopamine itself. The only way to harness the 'cuddly' feelings that serotonin allegedly brings, is by enslaving that sense of anticipation - the dopamine - as well. And Facebook is actively trying to achieve that enslavement via technology.

Hating the 'Likes' of Facebook

The 'like' button and the 'adds friend' button are the vehicle to achieve this enslavement. For a start, they both limit the range of interactive options to a narrow & relentlessly upbeat spectrum, that's all but guaranteed to trigger an excited emotional response. To the receiver, 'friend' and 'like' sound extremely positive whereas, to the sender, they may sound more neutral. Each party can see whatever they want in the others' response.  While the words 'Like' and 'Friend' are nearly neutral enough to entice reticent people to bandy them about, they contain enough positive associations to spread serotonogenic joy through subconscious mechanisms, in most people. 

Yet people that are responding to each others' posts really don't have any choice in what terms they use when they want to reach out to a fellow Facebook user. A 'like' may just be a casual "Hey, I'm just letting you know I read this". An 'add friend' may be a casual, "Hi, I remember you from that house party and wanted to share some pics I took before you slipped into the recesses of my social consciousness". Yet they are magically transformed by the buzz-generating terms of 'liking' and 'befriending' into something much more reassuring than that. The user is participating in the delivery of excessive neuro chemicals, whether they want to or not, every time they act.

In the real world, when someone is registering a response to a face-to-face update, or handing us a photo they took at that house party, it rarely arouses such strong feelings as it does when we receive a 'like' or a 'friend' on Facebook. Real-life interactions are far more nuanced than that. Ergo, nearly all people, or that have feelings, anyway, will naturally tend to prefer relating via Facebook, where their actions are more likely to result in a reassuring - but artificial - sense of acceptance. Feeling good about your actions is far easier and more straightforward there, than it is in the frequently detached & perplexing world of real relationships.

At this point, some would say, "Well, what's the matter with feeling better about yourself? Who wouldn't like to feel that everyone approves of them?" Erm, well, most honest people wouldn't, for a start. People who want their relationships to reflect the real strength of feeling or attachment that they actually have for one another. Yet the mass-scale of Facebook has ensured that such self-deception has become the new status quo, leaving people dangerously lax about engaging in such petty self-delusions. The danger is that the essentials lessons that help people create a better future aren't being learned in the present; their mutual haste to reassure takes precedence over level-headed analysis that may avoid real tragedies. That many people have vanished, gone mad, died or committed suicide while their hundreds of Facebook 'friends' watched &amp assumed that all was well - reflects the dangers that can arise from putting a relentlessly upbeat sheen on every act.  It lulls us into a false sense of security.

That may be why, when a Facebook user meets one of her Facebook 'friends' in person, the meeting sometimes feels anticlimactic and the rapport less positive than it did on Facebook... unless they happen to be good friends in real life, that is. Without the super-positive filter of Facebook people seem less nice, less supportive, and less ideal. The only way to interact with the ego-stroking version of them is to stay on Facebook... forever. Isn't that creepy? I think so.

By triggering a dopaminergic and serotinergic response in nearly every interaction, Facebook is not only instilling a false sense of acceptance: it is silencing the societal alarms that tell people when an attitude adjustment is necessary to survive.  At the same time, it is also deadening them to less pleasing realities. Take a Facebook addict's computer away and witness how apathetic they can become, how detached and anxious without the constant reinforcement of the 'like' button. It's an acceptable addiction, but it still keeps us attached to the platform, and detached from life's harder realities, the same way any drug can. 

Selling Us All Short

The middle man in all of this is the Facebook interface, and it acts like a desperate salesman; it wants us to 'like' its product so badly that it never stops fishing for new chances to flatter us and ensure our dependence upon it. Aside from being manipulative, this is also narcissistic. The creators have passed on their defects to us, by design. 

Some Facebook users that are reading this may be thinking, "Well, I already know about that. (In fact, I posted that same article on my timeline three days ago and 21 friends liked it, so I know they know about it, too)." Yet, acknowledging an effect consciously is a secondary response and an abstract one; at best, it can take four or five times to kick in than the dopamine and serotonin does. By contrast, these chemical changes can happen almost immediately, on a subconscious level. They also happen at the organic level of matter, that is less easy to adjust than an abstract belief. Basically, the brain has already changed, physically, by the time its owner recognizes what has happened. Maybe it's possible to undo the effect with greater mental control, but that takes time. And anyway, is learning to deny dopamine's effects even desirable, when that response exists to help us learn things that genuinely are necessary to our survival?

As the author of the Cerebral Cortex blog writes, "With mental control over neuronal firing, Facebook would no longer be so addictive. This is the plus side. But what about other enjoyments? Would they still be as pleasurable if we could personally control how much pleasure we felt?" Never mind about pleasure - if we could control dopamine's action, would we even still be able to learn? To survive? In an experiment in which rats had their dopamine exhausted through chronic overs-timulation, they simply died of starvation. They had food but no desire to eat, since it gave them no pleasure.

If manipulating dopamine and serotonin the way that Facebook does, is preventing our species from dealing with its immediate survival concerns - whether they be environmental, political or personal  - then Facebook has a lot more to answer for than the behaviour of its most extreme addicts.  Humanity's survival is poised on a cliff's edge, and Facebook is numbing our awareness of that fact, in part thanks to is excess of feel-good vibes. It is truly an opiate of the masses, yet is treated as a must-have accessory. I find it hard to imagine cocaine ever being treated the same way - probably because cocaine addicts are compelled to engage in real life, for better or for worse, whereas Facebook compels addicts to stay at home, in front of the screen, where advertisers feel they 'belong'.

Until the invention of Facebook, the only way to get a perpetual sense of stimulation and enjoyment via artificial means was to engage in antisocial, self-destructive behaviours: compulsive shopping, drug abuse, gambling, etc.  Yet, because Facebook cleverly disguises its non-stop dopamine buzz as actual feedback from real people - acquaintances, colleagues, family and friends - its manipulation flies unnoticed, under the radar.  It detaches us from the same people that would have traditionally helped each other to stay balanced, in the past, whilst telling us that we are in better touch with them than ever. As anyone who's lost a friend to Facebook addiction knows, spending hours on it per day can be every bit as self-destructive and isolating as any other bad habit. It's taken less seriously though, and the masses of people whose addictions are lower level are almost never recognized, at all.

Yet, without any hard public scrutinty on sites like Facebook, many people will probably continue to believe  the negative effects described above are not that big of a deal, in the grand scheme of things. Maybe those same people would change their tune, though, if they considered the effect that the site has had on reinforcing the attitudes of woman-haters, queer-haters, neo Nazis and other haters connected to the site. 

The Rapebook scandal offers an insight into even uglier, negative consequences of Facebook's excessively positive reinforcement: dozens of Facebook 'fan pages' have been discovered where men post violent, misogynistic images and share back-slapping comments about raping women. Nearly every "she-was-asking-for-it" rant or dead prostitute pic gleans a flood of 'likes' on these pages.  This is obviously raising the danger level for women everywhere yet, because Facebook is mainly 'just' a private networking site, anyone who wants to challenge such hate has to put their private accounts in the firing line to do so.

It seems to have never crossed Facebook's mind that THIS is why handing out free digital serotonin to anyone that signs up for an account, unconditionally, is a really bad idea.  What if the user happens to be a rapist, psychopath, neo-fascist or other wrong 'un? Most users are thinking about their balanced friends and family when they conclude that there's nothing wrong with giving Facebook users an unwarranted, feel-good boost. But what about someone who is typing updates like:  “Hitler was right” and posting pieces about “How to kill a batty boy”?  Amplifying positive responses to posts like these isn't just harmful, it's reckless. It's enabling haters to feel more validated and accepted than they may really be.

Maybe it's more than just a coincidence that people holding right-wing and extreme attitudes are becoming stupider, louder and brasher by the day. Or maybe it's Facebook's fault for offering hate groups a wraparound illusion of support. The Rapebook scandal exposed just one of the prejudices that has flourished in Facebooks' hothouse of almost-unconditional support, but thousands more could eventually grow out of it. Watch out, minorities.

Unfriend Fakebook

While psychologists and activists have been sounding the alarm over Facebook, the business community has been singing its praises, loudly, as it reaps the profits gleaned from selling targetted ads to a captive audience, full of addicts.  Yet the sneaky techniques that Facebook employs to tap these funds is about as tasteful as bile tapped from a live bear.  And it reduces our personal relationships and feelings to the same, shallow & degraded level as prepackaged bile, as well.

So, why then should we be rewarding such people by granting them access to sensitive data such as our 'Friends, Likes, Location and Interests', all free of charge? Quite simply, because we are being compelled to do so by the site itself. It rewards us for every new share, like or update with a reward from nature's biggest buzz: serotonin and dopamine.

All of the above evidence strongly suggests that Facebook is keepsing users hooked and viewing ads via a form of social engineering. And that this a reckless experiment is affecting real people and real life, in a bad way.  Should such a huge and risky experiment be carried out by a mindless, self-promoting commercial interface that's run purely for profit? If your answer to this question is 'no' then it might be time for you to un-friend Facebook altogether.


  1. I went off FB a couple of years ago from privacy concerns (I also dropped my Gmail account for similar reasons).

    I personally would have liked FB to call 'friends' 'followers' 'acolytes' or 'potential fuck buddies' to make things a bit more interesting.

    I don't really get why FB is so essential in people's lives. It didn't exist 10 years ago and we were seemingly fine. Now people talk as if they can't live without it. It's just bullshit corporate marketing. If you are on FB you are the product, and your thoughts and actions are being sold to the highest bidder (including it appears the NSA/CIA etc).

  2. Sorry I'm late to this post but it's a very good one (there's your 'like'---laugh). I'm of the opinion that FB is *at least* as bad as all that and worse... and I don't buy into its creation myth, either, despite the fact that a Hollywood movie supports the myth (the way Hollywood supports so many other pseudo-histories before the facts leak out and taint the product).

    It's not just the "likes" that are so seductive/damaging... it's the opportunity to craft a virtual self and generate real (if vague) admiration and envy for our avatar and its heavily-edited or exaggerated exploits. What the Hollywood star must enjoy (and come to rely on) when a team of expensive handlers invent/promote/burnish/maintain her/his image, we get to enjoy/rely upon for "free"... the few (or full time) hours we invest every week in our avatar and chronicling its "life".

    I only use FB to "stay in touch" with two-dozen very old friends I haven't shared a continent with in a very long time. If people I actually see or text or phone every day were in my FB too, the virtual-meatspace overlap would horrify me! But it would be even more horrifying if all the different compartments of my Real Life were joined by FB... like living in a hotel without interior walls! Aka: a gulag.

    1. Hi Cornelius, that's a brilliant point. Sorry it took me so long to post it.

      The whole purpose of Facebook does seem to be to make its users think that they're stars of their virtual world. It's an ideal tool for promoting the illusion that being in the spotlight and/or rich solves all your problems. If we're all striving to be stars in our virtual lives, then we've bought into that illusion... and will probably be more likely to spend real money on it, offline. Without Facebook, celeb culture would have died a natural death years ago, along with all its associated luxury goods & services. Very few people can actually afford them after all. But strangely, they still feel it's a matter of life and death to take out a loan or run up credit card debt to pay for them!

      Facebook fans are fond of talking about the site like it's some kind of altruistic service but the fact is it wouldn't exist if it wasn't creating a big fat profit margin for someone. Facebook just hides that fact very well... and I have to ask why?

  3. "Facebook fans are fond of talking about the site like it's some kind of altruistic service but the fact is it wouldn't exist if it wasn't creating a big fat profit margin for someone. Facebook just hides that fact very well... and I have to ask why?"

    Plus I've noticed it's a highly effective way to discourage dissent: peer pressure can make you feel a total ass if you're the lonely "friend" who, rather than "like" a comment or post, disagrees with it. Worrisome example:

    I have an old friend (ex GF) on my little FB and she was a real Lefty-Deadhead-Bunny-Hugging-Poem-Quoting type in the old days. Recently I was horrified to find a photo on her FB of a moron with a rifle, grinning over the carcass of the poor deer he'd just murdered (on her land). I went into some detail about how horrible I thought the image, and the killer, were... but she joined in with the half-dozen-or-so pro-hunting liberal-rednecks who seemed to think I was either naive or not manly enough. Disgusted, I un-friended her. After which she immediately contacted me and begged me to re-friend her and explained her position: these were the people she lived around, worked with and grew up with...she had to get along with them. It was a long note and in it she sounded a lot like the girl I'd known years ago... a girl who was the exact opposite of the jeering redneck in that pro-hunting comment thread. I thought: WTF? Is FB turning her into a schizophrenic?

    1. Yes, we've all asked ourselves the same question about our Facebook friends at some point...

    2. ...and I'm sorry about your friend. A mate of mine turned into a raging misogynist after he made the change from meatspace to virtual reality... Although strangely he was a very decent guy whenever we met up! It was just his hateful Facebook posts that made me unfriend him. Weird how that can happen...

  4. I don't really get why FB is so essential in people's lives. It didn't exist 10 years ago and we were seemingly fine. Now people talk as if they can't live without it. It's just bullshit corporate marketing. If you are on FB you are the product, and your thoughts and actions are being sold to the highest bidder (including it appears the NSA/CIA etc).facebook

    1. Yeah I definitely agree. And not only were we doing fine 10 years ago, I get the feeling people are getting worse the more that they adapt to social media norms.

      You can read a bit more about that on my blog occupyyourreality.blogspot.com. The current entry is all about the way the net has changed people's behaviour - specifically by making them less ready to act on their own behalf.

  5. Facebook fans are fond of talking about the site like it's some kind of altruistic service but the fact is it wouldn't exist if it wasn't creating a big fat profit margin for someone. Facebook just hides that fact very well... and I have to ask why?"Buy Facebook Likes

  6. What a great blog, thank you for letting me comment on it.