Addicted to Persuasion

I think everyone should listen to THIS podcast, especially if the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night is check your phone.

Here is a brief description of the podcast:

“In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Tristan Harris about the arms race for human attention, the ethics of persuasion, the consequences of having an ad-based economy, the dynamics of regret, and other topics.”

Here is my summary: the major players (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram) are engaged in a contest to see who can take up more of your time (and sell it) . . . you are the loser as they persuade you to dance to their bidding and in the process replace meaningful endeavors in life with unhealthy substitutes.

OK, so that’s nothing new. We all recognize that since computers came on the scene, we’ve dedicated more and more time to interfacing with them.

What is not obvious to everyone is how the major players — and also minor players — use what we have learned about the human mind to manipulate you into spending more and more time in their particular playground.

The podcast covers mainly Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but also mentions other social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram. 

For example, one little detail I found particularly enlightening . . . when you go to Twitter, there is a slight delay before your stats come up. That also happens in WordPress and its stats page.

That mimics the spinning wheels of slot machines, and it’s targeted at the reward center of your brain. That small delay sets up anticipation for the gratification of seeing a number appear.

It turns out that the numbers of likes, shares, retweets, followers, etc. and how they are presented are all geared toward feeding your sense of self-worth. Perhaps a better descriptor is self-importance.

Again, this is nothing new, but what’s significant is the continued improvements in the sophistication of how this is done. These improvements are based both on research into how the brain works and by the first-hand experience of what works.

Facebook, for example, has a program — call it an AI — which optimizes what is offered to you based on your habits . . . clicking habits, likes habits, sharing habits, and so on.

It does not have the smarts to determine why you might be sharing something — they removed the human element from it — but it will nonetheless offer you up stuff based on your interaction.

The problem is that you could be sharing something because you are pissed off at it and want to comment on the item — a news story, for instance. The AI won’t be able to distinguish between you sharing it because you like the story and you sharing it because you hate it.

That’s one possible pitfall, but there’s another, and this is reinforcing something I’ve noticed both online and in the real world.

Outrage. It turns out that people love outrage. Specifically, to feel outraged about something or other.

Disclosure: I’ve been known to occasionally get outraged. These days I work hard at limiting exposure to things that might outrage me.

If you flat-out ask people if they want to maximize their outrage every day, most will say “no!” . . . but that’s not how they click, and their behavior eventually leads to a constant stream of outrage-worthy stories crossing their paths because those are the ones they interact with the most.

There is another feedback mechanism there . . . companies who want to sell your time to advertisers see the value in offering up stories with high-outrage value and either seek them out or manufacture them whole-cloth.

The loop is then closed when you, the product those companies are selling, live in a constant state of outrage.

Can you see what else that does? It gives you — and your closed group of friends — the impression that the country and the world are going to hell in a hand basket.

Not only that, if each day all you read shows you individuals from a given group — Republicans or Democrats, Conservatives or Liberals, atheists or Christians or Muslims, or broccoli eaters — being complete dicks, how long will it take before you assume they are beyond redemption, assume they cannot be reasoned with, assume they are all crazy?

Except for the broccoli eaters, you are getting a distorted picture of the groups because all you have been shown are the extreme and negatively slanted — outrage-worthy — actions of said groups, often represented by just a few individuals doing or saying stupid things.

I used to get into discussions where people flat-out told me there is no redeeming value to a given group and wouldn’t hear any arguments to the contrary. That was a few years ago; I stopped engaging in Facebook discussions because of those interactions.

Of course, there is more to the problems we face than just social media. The so-called news deserves a space under the umbrella. By the way, it can be argued today’s news also strives to maximize outrage (I’m looking at you FoxNews, but CNN and others are not far behind).

But, social media is how the outrage spreads.

Let me ask you a question . . . have you ever forwarded an article without fully reading it? Or, just reading the title before forwarding the link?

The podcast mentions the phenomena by relating the story of people forwarding a link to an article where all but the first paragraph was gibberish.  A recent study found 59% forward articles without reading them, relying just on the title as a guide to relevancy. 

I did a similar test in 2014, basically writing a nonsense post to see how many new likes and follows I would get. It’s a little different for the blog because people like and follow for a different reason than they would forward an article about, for example, Trump picking his Presidential nose. By the way, that post — my post, not Trump’s nose-picking exploits — gave rise to this short piece of fantasy. I’m quite proud of that one.

The point is that people are manipulated into sharing stuff and it’s easily done because the programmers that write the rules for Facebook, Twitter, and the like know what buttons to push.

If you are a Conservative and see the headline, “Liberal disrespects US Flag,” you don’t have to read the article to confirm your expectations. Similarly, a Liberal reading something like, “Conservative tries to buy a bazooka,” will condescendingly nod and forward the link to their Liberal buddies. Maybe they’ll add “Unbelievable!” as a title to the share or e-mail.

It doesn’t even matter if the headlines are true; it’s sufficient that they meet expectations. And, of course, tickle the Outrage Button.

The podcast’s host and guest discussed what could be done to improve the situation and help people both make better use of their time and reduce the insidious practice of manipulation Internet users into being slaves of their phones.

In that regard, I think Tristan is overly optimistic. Yes, he speaks of the big players — if they wanted to — directing people both toward a more positive Internet experience, and helping them have a better life.

To that end, he has a site called Time Well Spent that tries to educate and direct users toward Internet interactions that leave users glad as opposed to wishing they had done something more productive. There are even apps geared toward helping users take control of their on-line time. Here’s a TED talk he did on the subject:

Of course, one has to want to at least partially cut the chord.

As unpleasant as it was at the time, losing friends over Facebook interactions resulted in one positive thing: me curtailing my time spent on Facebook to little more than how long it takes for me to link my new posts. I could actually have them post automatically, thus avoiding Facebook and Twitter altogether. Hmm . . . I should do that, but I do occasionally interact with friends. 

Twitter is no problem . . . I’m too verbose to be anything more than annoyed at their 140-characters limitation.

YouTube can be a distraction, but there too I’m mostly playing it as background noise (music). Occasionally, I also look for stuff that crosses my path, like, for instance (give it thirty seconds or so to get going) . . .

I have an Instagram account but seldom do anything on it because . . . well, I have a blog for my photos.  Snapchat holds no interest for me even if I did have friends I interacted with daily.

A few years ago, I took a month off the internet, but I’m not likely to do that again. I mean, it was nice ignoring the daily Internet grind and realizing the online world and me did fine without each other, but there is stuff on the Internet I want to see.

The majority of my Internet time these days is focused on stuff I’m interested in and it has to obey one rule . . . I better be learning something. My biggest time draw is Gmail, but there too I’m unsubscribing from all sorts of mailing lists and automatically filtering messages.

Hint: sometimes, unsubscribing doesn’t work; you still get e-mails. I give it a few tries, and if that doesn’t work, I then set up filters that will intercept e-mails I don’t want and route them directly to the Trash.

Still, I’ll run the app from Tristan’s site that tells me what I spend my time on so that I can limit my interaction with sites that take too large a piece of me.

Even without running the app, I know I spend more time on the Internet than I do writing. True, some of that is interaction with blogs I read, some of it is learning things, and some if just keeping my fingers on the pulse of how we are destroying ourselves as a civilization.

. . . but, I should be writing  . . . It’s what I profess to like.

Meanwhile, something else crossed my path. This is apparently classified as Jazz. In general, I don’t like Jazz . . . but I like this next video.  I mean, is it Jazz? I don’t hear a saxophone or other wind instrument.

Eh, I don’t care . . . I’m going to write some as I listen to this and the rest of my playlist.

. . . uh . . . one last thing. THIS is a bit suspect to me because some of the metrics are self-reported (notoriously unreliable) but one should consider that it might be true.

These photos appear in THIS SmugMug Gallery.

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


Note: if you are not reading this blog post at, know that it has been copied without permission, and likely is being used by someone with nefarious intention, like attracting you to a malware-infested website.  Could be they also torture small mammals.


Please, if you are considering bestowing me recognition beyond commenting below, refrain from doing so.  I will decline blogger-to-blogger awards.   I appreciate the intent behind it, but I prefer a comment thanking me for turning you away from a life of crime, religion, or making you a better person in some other way.  That would mean something to me.

If you wish to know more, please read below.

About awards: Blogger Awards
About “likes”:   Of “Likes”, Subscriptions, and Stuff

Note: to those who may click on “like”, or rate the post; if you do not hear from me, know that I am sincerely appreciative, and I thank you for noticing what I do.

. . .  my FP ward  . . . chieken shit.

Finally, if you interpret anything on this blog as me asking or wanting pity, encouragement, or advice to better my life, know my subtle mix of irony, sarcasm, and humor is blowing right by you.