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The Implications Of Creating Addictive Products

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The Implications Of Creating Addictive Products

If you listen to Mark Zuckerberg, he simply created an innovative piece of tech that enabled the world to “connect”. Well, that wasn’t particularly novel in 2005. We had Myspace, Friends Reunited and Bebo for that. Hell, you could message your friends in real time on Instant Messenger, long before Facebook Messenger launched in 2011.

But what Facebook did better than those other businesses was create a far more addictive product – one which leveraged behavioral science principles to create something people could not live without. What has come to light recently is that, once they realized it had this effect, that became Facebook’s business strategy.

At an Axios event in 2017, Facebook co-founder Sean Parker said: “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors understood this – and we did it anyway.”

Why? To get users spending as much time on the app as possible: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”

Enter Brand Addiction

In a BBC Panorama documentary in July 2018 about smartphone addiction, Hilary Andersson spoke to a number of former executives about their time at the company, and their concerns about creating such an addictive product. Sandy Parakilas, a former product manager at Facebook, explained it thus: “Their goal is to addict you and then sell your time.”

Aza Raskin, the inventor of the endless scroll functionality, became so concerned about the power of Facebook to generate addictive behavior, he created the Center for Humane Technology: “We didn’t realize that it became so powerful that it addicts people,” he says. “[Facebook is the] largest behavioral experiment we’ve ever seen. It’s as if they’re taking behavioral cocaine and sprinkling it all over your interface.”

Everything on Facebook, from the prompt in the status bar of ‘What’s on your mind, Richard?’ through to the content that populates my news feed, and in what order, has been carefully calibrated to generate an addictive experience – to keep me coming back for my next fix, make me click on a blue thumb, stop me going elsewhere, and make me a more valuable user to feed Facebook’s business model.

Such is the importance of this that, in 2017, Facebook re-calibrated its algorithms so that users would start seeing more addictive content (i.e. from friends) in their news feed, and much less unwanted and unsolicited content from advertisers. Like Google persisting with the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button, the short-term impact on advertising revenue was sacrificed for maintaining long-term usage and profitability.

A measure of the level of addiction of Facebook’s more than 1bn active users was demonstrated in an experiment by Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein. He asked Facebook users how much they would be willing to pay for the formerly free service. The average answer was $1 a month.

Not a lot, you might think, but probably reflective of how people recognize that Facebook is, at best, a mixed blessing in terms of impact on our overall health and wellbeing. This figure is given much greater meaning when compared with the average amount people were willing to accept to stop being able to use Facebook: $59 a month.

Like a true addict, we know that our habit is potentially causing us harm. But don’t you dare try to take it away from us.

If you want to understand how valuable behavioral science is to a digital business – there’s your answer. Creating a product people want might make you a few million dollars. But creating one that people can’t live without – that could make you 59 times richer.

Combine this with other behavioral insights, and the implications are clear. Creating digital products and services using behavioral data can drive positive behaviors, but, as Professor Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard Business School claims, we are in danger of it ushering in “an age of surveillance capitalism.” We are witnessing that the rush for businesses to automate using the capabilities of machine learning and AI simply mean that this is now happening faster, at greater scale.

Accordingly, if your goal is simply to get rich, and you want to understand how a group of geeks from Silicon Valley became some of the richest people in the world – there’s clearly far more to be learned from a psychology textbook than there is from a computer science one.

But, if you ignore the moral and ethical implications, you may still get rich – but you could end up in jail.

Where To Now?

This approach raises important ethical questions, and businesses need to meet three key criteria to avoid possibly irreparable damage:

1. Are you using data ethically and legally (i.e. collecting with clear consent and being transparent about how the data will be used)?
2. Are the behavioral outcomes you are seeking positive? Ask: would you use the product or service, and will it materially improve users’ lives?
3. What are the implications of creating an addictive product? Will it have a net positive impact on society?

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Richard Chataway, President of BVA Nudge Unit UK and excerpted from his book The Behaviour Business, published by Harriman House.

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