This is Part II in the two-part series of how social media became king. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.
Since the dawn of time, people have always been out to compete with one another. Every day you do your hair a certain way, post pictures on Instagram of yourself on the beach when you’re actually at your desk, carefully word each humble brag post on Facebook telling everyone you’ll be traveling to X country instead of Y country, and hang out with Sandra, but only post about the times you hang out with Terry. It’s all because of our desire to be the best person we can be… well… I guess that is only half of it. We do all of that because we have been “systematically” taught that is the thing to do, but we also do it to try and gain some kind of “competitive advantage” over each other. You can spin it any way you want, but social media is a highlight reel of your best moments. You take the picture with the best scene, and angle and post that one while taking the 500 other pictures and throw them on the cutting room floor only to be brought alive when you are desperate for a post; and it happens to be #FlashbackFriday. So what fuels this? Genetics is the obvious answer, but is there more that lies beneath?
At any given moment, you can go onto Facebook and find a recently posted album of pictures from a friend that you knew 8 years ago in high school. Why you are friends with the person who you aren’t even friends with is along the same lines of posting a photo album that only Aunt Lucy will look at… you are both trying to feel important. Narcissism is on the rise and one thing can be attributed to it – social media. In one day, there are around 52 million photographs uploaded to Instagram, 421,920,000 status updates on Facebook, and 8.6 million tweets tweeted on Twitter (say that 5 times fast). Within the past 10 years, two diagnoses have risen sharply. The two diagnoses are obesity and, you guessed it, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD has risen from around 2% in 2008 to a near 16% in 2016 in a clinical setting. It’s the insatiable hunger of wanting to be liked. Funny enough, researchers have found that the need to be “liked” is a universal phenomenon – not liked in the person-to-person aspect, but in the social media aspect. People’s desire to be seen more favorably on social media tends to almost outweigh the desire to be seen more favorably in real life. How many times have you posted something you thought would get a lot of likes? Now, how many times did you check that social media platform in the hours after that post? Probably more than you’d like to admit.
In fact, a study done by the University of Michigan showed a direct correlation between posting on social media and the increased likelihood of narcissism. What are the characteristics of NPD? Things like a deep need for admiration, an inflated sense of self-importance, needing attention from other people, and choosing friends based on their status instead of their personal qualities. Now, are our own narcissistic tendencies to blame, or was social media designed from the beginning to tap into this and exploit it?
Slot machines have been around since around 1891. There is no skill involved in playing, it has a very low pay to play barrier (usually 1-25 cent(s)), and if you’re lucky, you might just win a time or two. On the other hand, they are considered the “crack cocaine” of gambling. Why? How did a machine that just spins wheels randomly become the “gateway drug” to gambling? Slot machines tap into something called “intermittent variable rewards”. This means that while winning is possible, it is still rare, but that makes it way sweeter than winning a hand at Poker that you have full control over – for the most part. So, the intermittent variable reward draws you in more and more to keep playing even though you told yourself you were only going to spend $40 at the casino that night. Researchers have discovered that slot machine gambling doesn’t always happen for the pure interest of winning money but instead to get the rush and feel the excitement right when the wheels start and stop spinning. Even more interesting is that only 21% of millennials see gambling as “important” where other generations fall around the 40% mark. However, if millennials were to play a casino game, 44% say that slots would be one of their top options. How did we get on the topic of slot machines? Go to your phone, open your Facebook app, and slide down on the screen. Did you just win the slot machine or did the house win again? Maybe it’s a bonus round and you have 15 notifications that you must check. Now go to your Instagram app and open it. Did it take a few seconds to load? Do you think that was by chance or on purpose? That four-second load delay I observed on Instagram when I was using only wi-fi and then only data is no accident. The load time is designed to feed into that intermittent variable reward system we have. You might not win money, but you do win a sense of gratification and excitement which, over time, is very hard to break even if you stop getting rewards. So, while slot machines are an estimated 70% of a casino’s earnings, you, the user, are 100% of the social media’s earnings.
Have we been “programmed” to adopt to social media since the beginning of time or is it one of those things that we just happened to fall into by accident? There is no arguing that our brains are hardwired to crave attention, but are our brains hardwired to handle the attention that is at our own fingertips? With the increase of depression, the decrease of sleep because of social media, the increase of narcissism, and the decrease of face-to-face interaction, it’s easy to point the finger at smart phones and social media and label them as the culprits. But, culprits are good at disguising themselves… and maybe, just maybe… the culprit is right in-between those two ears of yours.
By Brian Flick