The algorithms driving social media apps. How do these algorithms work? Why do we love them so much? How do they slowly extort our health, happiness, motivation, and productivity? And is there anything we can do to stop them? I don’t think I really know… but let’s get into it.
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Disclaimers: Brandon Zerbe is not a doctor, medical or financial professional. Always consult a professional before starting any program. Use of this information is strictly at your own risk. Brandon Zerbe will not assume any liability for direct or indirect losses or damages that may result from the use of information contained in this recording including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.
I’ve found a way to quit sugar, to climb out of extreme debt, and to break away from addictive video games. And I’ve avoided exposure to most addictive substances like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol throughout my life. I’ve taken many steps and strides to improve my health and happiness but there’s one addictive habit I just can’t break. One habit that despite being well versed in its mechanisms, and actively putting protocols in place for prevention, that slowly creeps its way back into my life. One habit that I can’t do in moderation with any real effectiveness. And one habit that depletes my motivation and productivity in ways I can only imagine being possible with a drug. And that’s the algorithms driving social media apps. How do these algorithms work? Why do we love them so much? How do they slowly extort our health, happiness, motivation, and productivity? And is there anything we can do to stop them? I don’t think I really know… but let’s get into it.
How Algorithms Work
An algorithm is just a mathematical process or set of rules that produces an output based off an input. For example, if you input the word “dog” into google, an algorithm or set of rules are run to determine what information you’re seeking. After the algorithm is run, it will output results. In this case, pictures, and fun facts about domesticated canines. Input, algorithm, output. And the better the algorithm is, the more likely that the output will be desirable based on your input. This has incentivized many companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others to create more sophisticated algorithms to provide you with more desirable results. And to do this, these algorithms start accepting more of your inputs to tailor their results. Not only are they utilizing what you type in Google, Amazon, or Facebook, but they’re now analyzing which results you click on, how long you spend looking at each result, which results convert into purchases, which you share with others, and which cause you to spend more time on their platforms. Because the more information they have about you, the more relevant and desirable results they can provide to you. And this all sounds like a good thing. It’s why we’ve fallen in love with algorithms.
Why We Love Algorithms
If you open Facebook, you’re shown a feed of posts, events, and pictures that your friends have posted. And based on your previous behavior, the algorithm will display what it thinks is the most relevant and desirable information to you first. So, you’re likely to see your best friend’s wedding post immediately rather than your former coworker’s irrelevant gripe about the strawberries being moldy at Wegman’s. And these relevant results make you more likely to keep scrolling and enjoying your time on Facebook as long as the algorithm keeps outputting results that keep you interested.
If you go to Amazon, you’ll see product recommendations for clothes that match your previous purchase history, and your favorite maps application will suggest a relevant destination based on the time of day and your frequented locations. These algorithms sort through all the information in the world to provide us with the most relevant and desirable results. It’s why if you were to use someone else’s phone and open their Facebook, Amazon, and Maps application that you’d find it much less interesting and relevant. These algorithms know us better than we know ourselves and provide us with outputs that keep us interested and engaged. And this is a good thing but…
The Algorithmic Extortion
This creates a few problems that I’ll outline. The algorithm’s results become so good, we can’t stop consuming. I did a quick search for “dog” on google just to confirm what a dog was. And I got the results I was looking for since it output a domesticated canine with relevant pictures. But it also output more results that I didn’t ask for, but the algorithm believes I’d be interested in. “Which dog can kill a lion?” That never crossed my mind in my initial inquiry, doesn’t provide me with any useful knowledge, but it’s drawn my interest and now I’m curious… I click on that link to find out this interesting but useless information and now Google populates two more questions I may be interested in. “Which dog is banned in India?” Again, another useless question that piques my interest. And this rabbit hole goes on forever until I get bored. Until Google’s algorithm can no longer produce another question that keeps me hooked. And with more engaging social media platforms like Tik Tok, Instagram, and YouTube, this rabbit hole is astronomically easier to fall into. And what these algorithms usually do is grab your attention increasingly with every next result that’s more extreme, crazy, funny, and interesting than the last one. And the results tend to be less educational and useful, and lot more entertaining and addicting. And only when you step back and analyze everything, do you realize that you came for a quick healthy apple to snack on, but you left with a stomach bursting of apple pie.
The second problem is that even if you can limit your consumption to just the healthy apple, that apple pie is ready to be consumed at any minute and waits in our pocket. Now that we carry our phones on us like assault rifles in a war, any time our brain is bored, or anxious, or wants an escape, we can reach in our pocket and succumb to the algorithms waiting to fill that void. And that algorithm’s latest Tik Tok trend or viral Reel is almost always more short-term rewarding than working out, reading a book, cooking a healthy meal, or getting work done. It’s so convenient and so rewarding that it’s hard to put down for an extended period even if we know the ramifications. So let me discuss some of the solutions I’ve talked about before and what I’ve learned.
Are There Any Solutions?
Just to recap the problem, these social media apps like Tik Tok and Instagram provide increasingly more engaging content designed to keep us on the platform. This content is usually more short-term rewarding than many of the healthy activities we should be performing. And with these apps being conveniently ready to use at all times of the day, waiting in our pocket, I’ve found it extremely difficult to limit my screentime over the long term. Previously, I’ve suggested solutions like:
But even with these solutions, all I’m doing is attempting to moderate my behavior. And what I find is that these tactics can work in the short-term, but over time my screen time slowly creeps back up after a few weeks or months. Maybe I ignore the app limit notification one day, or turn on notifications just for close friends, or change my screen back to color for certain videos. Whatever it is, I’ve seen trends in my screentime going upwards because the content on my phone is just so engaging, entertaining, relevant, and convenient. I mean as addictive as added sugar is, you at least must go to your pantry or a store to get it. As addictive as alcohol can be, you still must drink enough of it and wait for the effects. But with these social media algorithms, that dopamine hit is just seconds away and rarely disappoints. And as much as I like to think I can limit my behavior, I know I’m fighting against an algorithm designed by hundreds of well-paid doctorate level employees doing everything they can to keep me on the platform. That’s a tough fight to win. So, I don’t know if I have a great solution for this other than physically keeping my phone as far away from me as possible or removing all social media applications from my phone. And I’ve yet to make that second change so far, but it’s starting to seem like the only true solution. And I should add, even when my screentime has been at its highest of almost 4 hours a day, and it’s clearly become a problem for me, that’s the average amount of time everyone spends on their phone in America these days.
Algorithms are mathematical equations that serve us an output for the information we input. And as these algorithms become more sophisticated, they provide increasingly relevant information that keeps our attention. But with these applications having a never-ending supply of outputs, and the outputs being so relevant, it’s hard to stop over consuming. Especially, when these dopamine hitting results are always waiting in our jeans pocket. And although I’ve attempted many solutions to moderate my behavior, over time, my old habits find their way back. Although I don’t consider myself addicted, I do see significant ramifications of choosing these quick dopamine hits over the long-term rewarding habits like working, reading, and meal prepping. And I’ve yet to find a satisfactory solution to this problem other than physically keeping my phone as far away as possible from me. And maybe, eliminating social media from my phone altogether.