I think we all addicted: the uproar over Instagram

Sunday, 8 October 2017


So it’s been established that Instagram’s new algorithm sucks, engagement is down, and we all hate it.

It’s also been established that everyone’s been complaining way too much, and we’re kinda done with the people who won’t stop going on and on about it.

Prepare to be annoyed at me.

I’m just kidding. Sort of. I am here to complain but I have some different reasons to throw into the mix. Hopefully it can shed some light on why everyone is so angry at an app and, in my opinion, justifiably so.

All of the uproar over Instagram’s changes got me thinking about an article I read in The Economist’s 1843 magazine. In the article - titled ‘The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive’ - Ian Leslie investigates how app developers use the insights of behaviour design to keep us hooked on their products.

Behaviour design is a discipline that looks at how design can shape or influence people’s behaviour. Think Skinner’s hungry rat in a box experiment. The box had a lever that would cause a food pellet to be dispensed into the box when pressed, so the rat learned to head straight to the lever whenever it was hungry. The reward reinforced repetitive behaviour. Over time, however, the rat pretty much learned the system and only pressed the lever when it was hungry. Skinner then decided to vary the rewards, giving the rat no pellets, one, or several when it pressed the lever. Not knowing for sure what the results would be the rat became hooked, pressing the lever again and again.

Skinner’s experiments are a precursor to behaviour design and you can see where app developers have taken the insights. Instagram might not be satisfying our hunger but it does tap into our needs for connection and affirmation from other people. It also does this with varied results. When we open up the app, we might see new likes, comments, followers, or messages. At the very least, we’ll see some cool photos. The amount will vary, but that’s what gets us to keep checking.

In the article, Leslie also talks to B.J. Fogg, the founding father of behaviour design. Fogg is a scientist at Stanford University who has been researching human behaviour and technology for decades. One of his theories is that to get people to do something they must want to do it, be able to do it, and be prompted to do it. The best way to make someone want to do something is to make the action as easy to carry out as possible. Then people are much more responsive to prompts. App developers take their time perfecting user experience and on a user-friendly smartphone, how many activities are easier than spending time on an app? Prompted by notifications, we reach for our phones and we’re soon back to endless scrolling.

The majority of prompts from social media apps also come from other people - we’re notified when someone else likes or comments on our photos or when they follow us. Social interactions are one of our biggest motivators as our brains release pleasant, habit-forming chemicals whenever they happen, even if it's just in the digital world. So essentially, we all keep each other hooked.

Another one of Fogg’s theories is to make people feel successful. He talks about Instagram’s filters letting users feel like an artist. But we all know Instagram has several other ways of making people feel successful - through the numbers of followers, likes, and of course through the way people curate their lives on the app (although this one’s more on how people decide to use it and less down to the app itself).

Fogg’s research over the years wasn’t done with bad intentions; he developed his theories before social media even existed and thought about how they could be applied to education or personal finance. But many have capitalised on his work, using his insights to make digital products that stealthily consume our time and attention. One of Instagram’s co-founders was even a student of Fogg’s.

After re-reading Leslie’s article, it was easy to see why all of Instagram’s changes feel so unfair to so many people, not just the one’s whose livelihoods depend on the app. It’s been designed to be addictive and we’ve all been hooked on seeing certain numbers of likes and comments on our photos. With those numbers severely lowered, we’re getting less satisfaction and (not 100% sure because I’m not a scientist but) dopamine hits. It’s a less effective drug now, essentially.

But now I’m also starting to question if the change in the algorithm is a new method of keeping us hooked. Instagram has introduced new features over the years but the recent changes have made big variations in the ‘rewards’. Now it seems people are spending even more time on the app, obsessing over it, and trying to figure out how to excel at engagement with the new rules in place.

And now I’m just looking at my phone with fear and disgust.

So please feel free to vent about Instagram in my comments section as much as you want. I hope this blog post has given you more fuel to your fire. Also, you can read Ian Leslie’s ‘The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive’ here. It’s a great, eye-opening article that covers many other apps and the ethics of behaviour design.

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