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Facehooked: Why you keep coming back to your Facebook feed

We sit staring at the tiny displays on our machines, at the characteristic blue and white banners of Facebook. We paw at the glass screens, swiping through miles of digital feed. What are we searching for? Why do we scroll? And why do we keep coming back?

Image: Erik/Flickr/CC

Though everyone has unique answers for these questions, there might be some underlying trends, some shared impulses.

According to Mark Zuckerberg, around 63% of all Facebook users are logged in on any given day. Not only are there 1.28 billion Facebook users, but they are extremely loyal…or addicted.

A new day begins as the alarm on your phone goes off. Half asleep, you fondle your phone, disable the alarm, and open a new window, a new tab. You tap the browser’s search bar – a prompt for the most likely webpage comes up: Facebook. You open the page and your eyes glide to the top right: any worlds with red? Any speech bubbles? A new bust!?

After a scan of the notifications, users will likely move to the news feed. Maybe the user will at first scroll with purpose, but it soon becomes aimless. According to an article published on Slate, when calculating which posts appear at the beginning of your feed, Facebook’s algorithms sort through around 1,500 alternatives. Each time you like, share, or view an article – this information is fed back into the system, refining your news feed.

Ideally for Facebook, your news feed is so enticing and perfectly personalised to you, that you consume everything, including the concerning rapier-tailored advertising. This might be Facebook’s ultimate goal.

But Facebook has failed. The algorithms that manipulate the news feed are imperfect. They are imperfect because news feeds are filled with inanity, time sinks, and other BS that we do not care about. Only a small portion of the content stream is interesting, rewarding, or important – these things are diamonds in the rough, bottle caps in the mud.

Though Facebook has failed in refining a perfect personal news feed, leaving the majority of posts undesirable, I suggest this is one reason behind their success, why over half of the 1.28 billion users flock back each day.

We have chemical circuits in our brain that make us feel good when we perform certain behaviours, often evolutionarily important ones: exercise, get rewarded; eat ‘good’ foods, get rewarded; have sex, get rewarded. These chemicals, such as dopamine, work best when they’re triggered intermittently, even sporadically. Having consistent stimulation of these circuits can lead to a dulling down of the positive feeling. Drug dependent behaviour is associated with a numbing of dopamine reception.

Too many rewards? No good. Too few rewards? Definitely no good. Random and inexplicable encounters with reward? That, I can get into.

Since this experience-reward-repeat circuit is entrenched deep in our brains, you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s being manipulated by opportunists. Enter, poker machines.

Imagine a poker/slot machine that worked like this: You tell the machine how much you are going to bet in that sitting. The machine immediately tells you how much you’re going to walk away with (either more or less, probably 10% less). The game starts. Each time you spin the reels, the machine dishes out a consistent fraction of your total win. Would this be enjoyable? No! No it would not.

Undoubtedly, poker machines would not be a social blight if this predictable system was in place. A poker machine is fun because it is unpredictable…and because it has flashy lights, cacophonous tunes, and an inbuilt ashtray. A little win here; a little loss there. When the payout will come? Nobody knows.

Earlier machines had a single line of reels, not very engaging. With current machines there can be up to 200 lines at a time. This opens up the opportunity for many tiny wins, or ‘faux wins’. Faux wins are when you ‘win’ a sum of money less than what you originally wagered. “The laboratory research on this shows that people experience this [faux win] in their brains in an identical way as a [regular] win,” says Natasha Schüll, a behavioural scientist. Sadly, this multi-reel system keeps your dopamine flowing with many small ‘wins’, fake or otherwise.

If you are a typical social media consumer, you are likely sitting in front of a screen with reels of content that varies drastically in quality. Some things are rewarding (funny, informative, or pertinent) and some things are not. Facebook’s imperfect news feed algorithms have you scrolling past the irrelevant material, searching for that dopamine kick.

If your news feed was perfectly suited to your desires, this would be good, yes, but time is limited – you could only read a few articles before becoming satiated or needing to move on. And yes, the ads would be better suited, but you would have exposure to fewer.

In the current, imperfect news feed system, you are funnelled through that constant stream of billboards and personalised advertising, all while searching for another post of at least meagre entertainment.

On the other hand, if a news feed offered no reward at all, then you might give up immediately, to Facebook’s detriment. And this is why I predict a multi-columned news feed in the future: one scrollable page with various independent columns of content. This would lead to an ultimate win for Facebook’s advertisers, while delivering many petty, small wins for the user, hooking them for longer.

Of course, this is not quite comparable to gambling because we are spending our time, not money, to take a spin with our news feed reels, unless you consider your time to be money. Maybe you keep coming back to your social media feed because it gives more than it takes. If you receive comfort, enjoyment, or education from your Facebook news feed, then you might just be defying the odds.

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