Social Media programmers, interface maestros, information architects and free-to-play game developers have discovered how to create games in order to maximise addiction. Neurological dopamine pathway ignition - this is the basis of addiction, compulsion and repetition. People don’t become addicted to food, sex, pornography, gambling, sport, racing, exercising or love – these are merely the mundanely corporeal methods of igniting dopamine pathways. Dopamine is the reward we seek – not lucky red-13, hot flesh or doughnuts. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays central role in reward-motivated behaviour. Indeed, for all hedonistic and experiential purposes, dopamine is the reward. Didn’t he do well? Applause.
Programmers realised the best way to tap into our neurological reward protocols was to provide frequent but unpredictable rewards; just like love and gambling. The first time is always a rush. Whoosh. Didn’t he do well? Applause. But like all addictions, nothing is like the first time. Neurotransmitters don’t have a volume dial, and, like the difference between a child’s soft palms and the calloused leather of your grandfather’s, sensitivity and vibrancy can only fade with use and time. The deafening and unexpected euphoria of the first applause soon becomes a faint and disappointing greeting. The vivid, rushing crescendo of ecstasy soon becomes a limp and anticlimactic chore. You are left standing waiting for the inert and polite applause to end, anxious to get to the next one. Didn’t he do well? Applause.
Even while the, now boring, faint static of applause is fading you have your mind on the next one. The next one is always better, until it’s not the next one anymore. Experiential ‘rush’ becomes task-based rush, a rush to get to the next one, a chase, offering all the potential of the first time. Remember when you were young? It was the summer before big school and you vowed to find a four-leafed clover like the one your sister found, you lay on your belly for hours squinting into the emerald world, softly combing the grass with your fingers… We saw the horizon, where cyan haze kissed the ridge of earth behind the dendriform silhouette. We started running to it. I don’t think we got there.
It is the chase of the next one, that next one that could be just like the first time, that creates the behaviours of addiction. Crazy for love. But, no one ever knows where the next reward pathway ignition comes from, gamblers don’t win predictably, pre-planned and scheduled lovin’ isn’t what we crave. Frequent but unpredictable rewards are always just round the corner, in our inbox, our Facebook wall, tweet-feed, Whatsapp account, next level, next season, next week, next video, torrent, feed. What do animals do after the first time they receive a reward, in particular an unexpected reward that they didn’t have to work for? They watch the space it came from. Today our dopamine protocol is used to exploit us – all social media operates by maximising our addiction. Social media is the seductively glowing touchscreen that frequently and unpredictably ignites our dopamine reward pathways. Every now and then, just like life, an old friend appears or a throwaway thought attracts attention. Social media is a user generated mode of frequent and unpredictable rewards. Auto-junk, hive-pusher. Applause… We sit and gaze, tap and scroll, dead fingers talking and tapping, fingers look frozen with the tips bathed in blue light. Digital scramble.
A trained dog watches the hands of its trainer, wet eyes glued to the hands that may, every so often, offer a reward. We scroll, tap and squint – our wanting, our pursuit of rewards modulates our behaviour, we form twitches, like a smoker’s automated hand movements our tapping connective click drive punctuates all social and work situations. Tap, scroll, update. Didn’t he do well? Applause. Everyone does it, right? Red-eyed anxiety avoiding eye contact, nodding monosyllabic distracted and uneasy; if we met ourselves in the 70’s we’d be dismissed as junkies. But it’s good to stay connected, good for business and staying in touch with friends, all the time, twentyfourseven.
Throughout 2014 Facebook had been losing traffic. By 2015 Facebook had a 60% mean traffic loss in one year. Stocks had plummeted. However, this trend soon reversed. People were steadily using Facebook more and more. Endless friends and colleagues muttered absentmindedly “y’should get back on it” whilst tapping their glowing postcard sized portals. Before long Facebook traffic levels increased. Before long traffic volumes surpassed it’s April 2013 record. By 2016 Facebook reported 4 billion active accounts. Over half the world were on Facebook yet other social media sites and apps, such as Twitter, Whatsapp, Klout and Digg also reported phenomenal traffic growth.
Then, in 2017, it hit the headlines. “Return Key” was the project’s code name. Will Lector, a whistle blower from the upper echelons of Facebook, claimed that the key to its success was deciding when to inform its users of interactions such as friend requests, likes and comments. The times listed on the site against these interactions were falsified. Online relationships became temporally fictional. Facebook ceased to operate in real time.
In response to this Facebook representatives argued that data transfers always have a degree of abstraction from user input – processing time. Lector claimed that project Return Key was initiated solely to provide frequent but user-unpredictable interactions that would illicit the greatest ‘user satisfaction’. Lector suggested that project Return Key systemised the creation of “end user view randomness” in order to drive return traffic and multiple engagements. Facebook representatives counter argued and suggested that Lector was a paranoid schizophrenic who saw, in the data architecture, patterns that were simply not there.
Zuckerberg, who still owned 28% of Facebook, had been missing since 2015. Explanations and theories flourished. He was dead through suicide or comatose in a cryogenic cell. He was living on a private island and paying Google and the US government for ultimate privacy from airplanes or satellites. He had fled business and attempted to live alongside the Korubo people in the Amazon basin. He existed only online. Regardless, his absence fuelled speculation and added doubts to the public’s perception of the representatives explanations.
In 2019 Will Lector released a book called The Return Key. It was a best seller. In the book Lector maintained that project Return Key was a form of conspiracy to ensure the maximum level of social media addiction and suggested that complex algorithms operated on feedback loops with other users that embedded deep with the system the randomness of the notifications relied upon other unknown randomly selected users. Part of the reason a notification from a close friend would become visible would be due to the innocuous action of another unknown user. The frequent and unpredictable rewards of Facebook were mediated by machines, but ultimately based on the actions of other humans. Lector suggested that the rewards of social media were distributed like a computer virus, an addictive and furiously proliferating virus.
In the 2nd edition Lector suggested that Return Key 2.0 was already in existence when he left the company. He explained that the key objective of Return Key 2.0 was to begin automating degrees of online social interactions. So connections and comments could be generated automatically to support the relationships users felt with one another.
Scarlet eyes squint and dart. Soft smile of pacify as data slips by. ‘What? I’m listening’. Tongue searches teeth as the touchscreen is caressed. ‘I said... I said it's not real, they’re not your friends.’ The device buzzes in her palm, tendon on the back of her hand tense with intent. Conditioned digital scramble, tap tap tap. Applause. She glances up momentarily, questioning: ‘So?’