Dark Patterns of Design
While there’s been a relatively longstanding global culture of concern around digital addiction, we’ve now come to a point where people are looking at social media tools with an increasingly critical eye — even their architects. The time we spend with our faces glued to a computer or smartphone screen is ever worrying given its profoundly negative impact on how society functions. Today, humans are far less concerned with face-to-face interaction than they are with the thrills derived from the use of social media products.
But this is far from accidental. Rather, our compulsion to tweet, add “friends,” comment, and like — as well as anything else you can do on the most popular social media platforms — is the corollary of efforts designed to lead to these very actions. In essence, the addictive nature of social media is the intended result of manipulating behaviour to keep people online for longer.
Did anyone read my last blog post on the use of subconscious thought patterns to design digital systems? If yes, then you’ll remember I talked about a project my former agency worked on. This involved assessing human interaction with digital interfaces so their design could be improved to help users make better decisions. Our work was underpinned by nothing less than noble intentions. Can we say the same of the combined endeavours that led to one of today’s most pressing social issues? In the beginning, probably yes. Until recently, no.
Before the advent of smartphones — with their apps and push notifications — digital addiction wasn’t the major problem it is today.
According to a 2019 study by PushCrew, the push notifications opt-in rate for social media platforms is 57.4%, which is considerably higher than the opt-in rate for other types of app, like those relating to news/information, shopping/retail, gaming, travel/accommodation, and blogs/publications.
Statista estimates that, in 2019, there are 2.82 billion social media users, meaning approximately 1.62 billion people across the world actively choose to receive these notifications.
The chances that a staggering 1.62 billion people ignoring those notifications when they come in? Slim to none. And especially among younger people, who have fewer responsibilities, and therefore more time to kill, than adults.
Smart engineers and designers are no stranger to the fear of missing out — or, as the kids are calling it these days, FOMO. It’s what causes you to dash for your phone when that little ping sounds, instead of agonising over who’s interacted with your page and how. I’m guessing plenty of you have accepted dinner party invitations when you’re absolutely exhausted, right? Why? Because you hate the idea of missing out on great conversation, making new connections, and so on. Well, it’s no different in the digital world. FOMO is an intrinsic feature of human nature, and UX design takes that into account. So, what started as the basic intention to design social media tools, which people are able to use to their advantage, has turned into a darker desire to keep people engaged for as long as possible to maximise profits.
The upshot of this is a sizeable cohort who have lost the ability to interact with others in traditional ways to the detriment of their mental wellbeing. For many, levels of self-esteem now depend on the number of likes or comments their posts receive, or how many online friends or followers they amass — even if they barely know those people. Some followers are also likely to be bots, which, astonishingly, means pride in oneself is dictated by fictional individuals. Various studies have found that online connections with small groups of people can be beneficial, while others link excessive social media use with negative outcomes, like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and, in the most extreme cases, suicide.
Nobody, including those responsible for the issue, supports any of this. Back in 2014, Ethan Zuckerman — the man who invented pop-up ads — apologised to the world for his creation, explaining that his original intentions were honourable. Similarly, over the past couple of years, those who helped design the most widespread social media products have started to express regret after witnessing the negative impacts of their work. Of course, they knew what they were doing, in terms of retaining users for long periods — they just didn’t know they were contributing to such a monumental shift in the way society operates.
Gladly, this shift isn’t irreversible. With more and more smart engineers and designers realising they’ve long been guided by nefarious objectives, there’s a greater chance to strike a healthier balance between profit-making and safeguarding society’s mental wellbeing. In the coming years, the best-case scenario would be to see a striking change in the way social media products are designed and built. Ensuring they add value to society, rather than leading it down an even more sinister path, would certainly take us one step closer to an ethical digital world.
Many platforms have made ground in this respect, introducing features that reportedly protect digital wellbeing. Examples are those limiting the amount of time users spend in front of a screen or encouraging people to interact in more traditional ways. It’ll take some time before these features — and others yet to be developed — effectively allow society to back-pedal and return to a state in which humans instinctively choose real lives over digital ones. But fear not, the journey has begun!
Social media will always be part of society, and we simply need to accept that. If we can take steps to incorporate social media into our lives in a healthy, sustainable way, thus reducing its addictive effects, then it need not continue to be the overwhelming problem it’s become. I’m looking forward to finding out what other measures the most popular platforms will take to brighten their darkest patterns of design. Without such action, the future looks oh-so bleak.