Mar 3, 2020
Let’s talk about our use of smartphones and our dependence on social media.
More specifically, let’s talk about our use of smartphones and our dependence on social media while we’re crossing the street.
The smartphone is attacking us
The smartphone is one of the most dangerous tools humanity has ever created.
For adolescents, the 2007 release of the iPhone coincides with a drop in:
- Hanging out with friends in person (15%)
- Going out on dates (~20 percentage points)
It does preside over an increase in:
- Likelihood of feeling lonely (8 percentage points)
- Sleep deprivation (~10 percentage points)
For adults, smartphones tether us to work, never allowing us to truly disconnect. According to McKinsey, “Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” They incite comparison to others, ramping up the speed on our hedonic treadmills.
We do this not necessarily because we want to, but because we are compelled. When it comes to smartphones, we are rats in a maze: we think that we’re making decisions and choosing, while in actuality, we’re being taken advantage of.
Our brains’ primal instincts are being hacked and optimized. And there’s an uncountably large amount of money to be made in doing it.
Human brains are still fairly primitive
One of my favorite stories from the annals of product marketing has to do with Betty Crocker cake mix. Advertisers concluded that housewives enjoyed baking cakes, linking them to gift-giving and birth rituals. So they created easy bake cake mixes: just add water!
To their surprise, the mixes failed. Housewives thought: “A good cake couldn’t possibly be that simple!”
So instead of changing the formulation or the distribution (which would cost millions of dollars at that scale), they just added a couple of instructions to the packaging: “Add milk and eggs”. Boom, it was an instant success.
There are two takeaways from this story:
- Human brains are easily tricked. We layer our preconceived notions (a good cake must take time) onto reality (the cake was probably good enough), and transform it into a new reality.
- Advertisers look for shortcuts. Why redo the whole formula when we can just sidestep the preconceived notion?
The sweet science and dark art of advertising
Since its humble conception, advertising has been studied, taxonomized, and codified. It has found an unlikely bedfellow in evolutionary psychology.
In The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard explores 8 “compelling needs” that humans look to products to fulfill:
- Emotional security
- Reassurance of worth
- Ego gratification
- Creative outlets
- Love objects
- Sense of power
In this list you can see the humble beginnings and the evolved forms of those needs:
- Emotional security started with the tribe: early on, there was real risk to your survival if you did not feel emotionally secure and welcomed. Today, Likes and engagement tell you that your digital tribe is with you.
- Creative outlets began with storytelling: our ability to pass lessons down through generations separated us from apes and allowed us to build on past generations’ work. We see that right now in memes—remixing and evolving past ideas in new ways.
- Roots started with group identity: this is my family, my tribe, my town. Currently we see identity in politics, mirrored in our online communities.
Advertising targets those needs, fitting them together like lock and key, to sell product.
There’s incredible money to be made in taking advantage of human brains
At a prior company, we sold a fairly expensive piece of technology. Given our margins, we had $40 to spend on advertising which, on the Internet, essentially grants you an Infinity Stone. With that money, I could follow you around the Internet from today until your dying day, poking and prodding at you until you see our product filling those compelling needs.
Zoom out, and you would see that I wasn’t alone: I was part of a much smarter and more experienced digital marketing team. And we weren’t even the best. I’m wholy impressed and a little bit scared watching the folks at Away and Thuma (nb. don’t click on these links if you’re not interested in ads for luggage and bedframes besieging your timeline).
Buzzfeed Tasty remains the Hall of Famer here. Back in 2016, Tasty averaged 22.8M views per video in each video’s first 30 days. In Q4 2018, that audience translated to $3 million in revenue. They also pioneered the share rate metric: the number of shares divided by the number of views. A well-performing Tasty video generates 1-3% share rate. I can’t even get my parents to share my YouTube videos.
Now Software Engineers are in the game
If you haven’t read Hooked, you’re missing out on a terrifying dystopian look into how to hack the human brain for Engagement—that most magical (and lucrative) of tech company metrics.
The scariest thing is that digital advertising allows this hacking to happen 24 hours a day. It’s scaleable, omnichannel, and automated.
Candy Crush addicts the young and old.
The Infinite Scroll and Autoplay functions of Netflix have become so normalized that “bingeing” has lost its original negative connotation.
The first thing most people do when they wake up is scroll through their Instagram (author’s note: guilty).
The worst part: we’re signing up for it voluntarily
When you take a step back and finally see the maze, you realize that we stepped into it willingly. We signed up for Facebook, and then hooked that into Instagram. We parlayed that into Farmville, Candy Crush, and Minecraft, and while we waited for our tokens to regenerate, we killed some time on Youtube.
There are two quotes we ought to look at when considering the effects of smartphones on our ability to navigate the world:
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
The genius of Instagram is that it makes people willingly subscribe to hours of marketing every day.
When you think about it in this way, Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram was the greatest business deal in the history of the world. Facebook bought the closest thing humanity has to an infinite money machine for a mere $1 Billion.
In following posts, we’ll talk about how to detox, how to find balance, and how to regain some semblance of defense against the forces of advertising.
The intent of this essay is not to be a crusty invective against technology and youngsters, but rather an exploration into how we might engage more deeply with the world.
Our entry point into (and now exit point out of) this discussion, however, is a crusty invective: stop looking down at your phones when you’re on the road.
That is all.
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