A friend sent me a photo of his engagement alongside a message about his attempt to get away from social media. It wasn’t going well.
It’s gone too far and it’s too far gone- writing anything else would be an untruth- It’s too far gone, but you and your attention are not.
What would it look like for a network we call social to be made up of a true picture of society?
Social is not an algorithm built to decide what you see. Social is not giving the keys to advertising companies out for a profit. Social is not the 1% of rich, famous, cool, or hip populating your feed.
I believe there is a version of social media we could create that takes the user into account- we’re just not there yet. Where we are (and a starting point for this conversation) is design.
Marketing students who focus in digital marketing become adept at something called “conversions.” A conversion is a sale or (in a broader sense) movement of a consumer towards an engagement metric measured (subscribe, buy, view).
Conversion can be suggestive, persuasive, or manipulative. Imagine a scale marketers can dial to raise engagement. Low success to high success, but (counter-intuitively) high cost to low cost. Manipulative conversion has high success but very low cost.
Scam sites litter their pages with bright, red “Buy Now” buttons next to auto-playing video advertisements. It’s unhelpfully sorted, unnecessarily sorted, and grotesquely manipulative of our base instincts and neuroscience.
We may view these features as “distracting” or “annoying” but this view is dangerously naive. James Williams (of Time Well Spent) writes, “In the short-term, distractions keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live…”
This is the heart of conversion-centered design.
Even at the suggestive level, we are influenced to do things we don’t want to do. Look at the chart above. This study was taken from a LinkedIn page (arguably the least attention stealing social media), so just imagine the manipulative design features saturated on platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
This may be a question you’ve had:
Why should I leave social media?
Design is an iceberg tip of polarization, disinformation, mental health problems, online bullying, addictive hooks, false realities, and a greedy attention economy.
I wish this wasn’t true. Connection and life-giving community are essential to our survival, and digital spaces could be a new frontier for so many displaced by toxic culture. I wish that world existed… but social media is inherently built wrong. Manipulative design is a core feature, not a bug in the system.
The question isn’t “why should I leave“… Why would you stay?