The sale of products that are addictive, such as tobacco and alcohol, is obviously not new. And businesses that trade in addiction have long raised ethical concerns.
Recently, social media addiction has drawn critical attention from several articles, books, TED talks, and documentaries. But do social media companies raise unique ethical issues, not raised by older, more familiar, addictive businesses?
Indeed, social media companies differ from tobacco and alcohol companies in an important respect: the way in which they nurture their users’ addiction is ethically distinctive. The more you use a particular social media platform, the more addictive that platform becomes – not just generally, but for you, specifically.
Social media companies tailor their platforms to each user, employing data provided by that user, in a way that increases the level of the platform’s addictiveness for that very user. This is because social media companies use adaptive algorithms that, as technologist Jaron Lanier puts it, “make small changes to themselves in order to get better results”, where “better” is understood as more engaging, and in turn more profitable. As a result, it sparks an addictive feedback loop.
To understand why this is troubling, consider this thought experiment:
On your way to work, you stop at a coffee shop for a cup of coffee. Once you leave, unbeknownst to you, an employee recovers your cup from the rubbish, seals it in a zip-lock bag, and mails it to a laboratory. The lab processes the traces of saliva you left on the cup to develop a better understanding of the aspects of your biology that contribute to you becoming addicted to coffee. By the next morning, the coffee shop has tweaked their recipe and made their coffee slightly more addictive for you, in particular.
After your every visit, the coffee shop repeats this process. They gradually acquire more and more information about your biology as it relates to addiction, and ultimately come up with a cup of coffee that you find irresistible. Now you are highly addicted to their product, and you helped them achieve this result.
In such a situation, you would have a right to complain. Even if you were aware of the mild addictive potential of coffee before buying your first cup from this particular shop, this does not mean that you agreed to being served a highly addictive cup of coffee. Nor does it mean that you are on board with being used unwittingly in the coffee shop’s scheme to make their product more addictive for you.
Something similar is going on with social media. When you use a social media platform, you help its adaptive algorithms make the platform more addictive for you (and other people its algorithms categorise as relevantly similar to you). Even if you voluntarily signed up to use a particular social media company’s platform (perhaps even knowing its addictive potential), this does not mean you volunteered to help the company increase the platform’s addictive potential for you.
But is it not true of all addictions that the more you do it, the more addicted you become? Indeed, the more you drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, typically, the more addicted you become to each of these substances. And businesses selling addictive products have long employed marketing and advertising strategies that aim to make more people consume more of their products.
The point, however, is not merely akin to increased tobacco use resulting in heightened addiction to nicotine, nor akin to cigarette companies encouraging their customers to smoke more through advertising. The strategy being used by social media companies is categorically different: it is instead akin to a tobacco company increasing the amount of nicotine in a particular cigarette, thereby increasing the addictive potential of the cigarette itself. Similarly, the more you use the social media platform, the platform itself increases in its addictive potential.
Social media companies use you in the very process of making their platforms more addictive. They do not consider whether you want to be used against yourself in this way. There is a certain brashness to it: “Not only will we make our platforms more addictive for you, we will also get you to help us along the way.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.