• Josh

Attention-Bouncing

Social media so boring. Why is it still so addictive?


(N.B. I mostly exempt Twitter from this critique of social media, because at least Twitter allows one to curate the content and see what one wants to see; a well-curated Twitter feed can be excellent. But if you don't curate carefully, Twitter can be as bad as the rest.)


Lately I've read some good arguments for leaving sites like Facebook, or using them at the absolute minimum possible level. The reasoning includes things like: Facebook is Out To Get You; Facebook is Moloch; Facebook is Shiri's Scissor; Facebook gives you one or two useful features and in exchange takes your soul. Centrally, Facebook is addictive; it wants your eyes trained on content forever, regardless of whether you want that or benefit from it, because it wants to sell ads and perfect its targeting algorithms. Some of these arguments are going mainstream.


But while I think all this is important, I also think it leaves out an important aspect of what makes social media truly addictive and time-sucking: two social media sites are way more addictive than the linear sum of the two.


In my experience, Facebook is incredibly boring; if I spend more than five minutes at a time on the site, I lose interest and move on to something else. That something else, though, is often a second social media program like Instagram or Snapchat. These are also quite boring; I scroll through the Stories or Reels for a few minutes at most before giving up. And then I open Facebook again. Sometimes I bounce back and forth between apps several times before putting down my phone. In this way, my time on social media multiplies.


It's like I'm one of those Sim characters, but my attention meters recharge when they're not in use. My Facebook meter recharges when I have Instagram open, and vice versa.

Bladder's doing ok, though!

If you have enough apps, you can do this indefinitely! A minute here, two minutes there, and back again over and over. It's a perfect timesink precisely because the content is so inconsequential.


This is actually the flip side of a more common complaint, that people find Facebook so addictive that they can't drag themselves away. If Facebook had content that was so good I couldn't help but scroll--all my best friends' most interesting stories, well-written original articles and studies, thought-provoking observations, and the like--I would use Facebook much more, and probably really enjoy it! A well-curated Twitter feed can be like this, and can be a great intellectual boon.


But I don't know anyone who actually thinks Facebook works like this. In the same post in which Zvi calls Facebook "addictive", he does an experiment and finds that not more than a few percent of the posts in his Feed are actually interesting to him. Facebook wants your eyes on your screens, and while it could accomplish this by providing you content you actually want to see, it is apparently more profitable to give you 95+% garbage, seemingly randomly sorted in a way that nobody really likes. What gives? From whence comes the addiction?


Here are two mechanisms that keep us coming back:

1) the needle in the haystack: you spend time looking for a rare important post you wanted to see in a vast sea of crap you don't care about; and

2) the lottery wheel: you close and reopen the app again and again, where each time feels like another chance to see something good on top of your feed; the more times you pull that lever and lose, the more you feel like your lucky day must be coming up.


The needle in the haystack keeps your sessions longer than you want them to be, which is what I hear most people complain about; you just got on Facebook to show off a picture of your baby, and got sucked into scrolling for an hour. But the lottery wheel can be deadly too. Even if (like me) you find it easy to close out of the Facebook application and go to something else, you might (like me) find yourself right back on it a few minutes later.


Pull the Facebook lever; you lose.

So now pull the Instagram lever; you lose.

Well, maybe try the Facebook lever again; you lose.

Maybe there's something new on Snapchat; you lose.


...And so on. Facebook knows this. Every time you open the application, it puts something new on top. "Maybe this time I'll actually see something good!"


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This phenomenon, of bouncing from one application to the next and back again, I call attention-bouncing (or just bouncing), and I attribute most of my own social media use to it. But in fact the phenomenon is more general; I catch myself attention-bouncing in other contexts too. Here are a few examples:

  1. Bouncing between devices. I have a laptop, an iPad, and a phone on my desk at work. I have caught myself checking the same News Feed on the same profile back and forth, bouncing from phone to laptop to iPad back to phone and so on.

  2. Bouncing between dating apps. When I was single, this worked largely like the social media case. I knew that I didn't get any new messages, but I still bounced back to Tinder after checking OK Cupid.

  3. Bouncing between projects at work. As a theorist working in particle physics, I tend to have between 3 and 6 projects ongoing at any given time. My time would likely be better spent working on one to completion, then the next, then the next, at least not switching tasks many times in one day. But I find myself working on one project for a few hours and then bouncing to another, and back again. I have dozens of browser tabs open and too many calculation/writing programs because they can apply to any of my projects. Each time I bounce, I have to remind myself what calculation I was doing and what needs to be done next.

  4. In the non-digital world, bouncing between chores. I know I'm not the first to point out how one can start out wanting to sweep the floor, but sees the dishes and starts to wash those first, but wait the kitchen is a mess let's just wipe things down, and what is the deal with this chair it is always wobbly let me get my tools, but I can't sit on the floor to fix it until I sweep this floor...

Examples 3 and 4 especially illustrate another negative aspect of bouncing: transition time. Those additional seconds and minutes finding, opening, and waiting for an application are not zero, and they add up; in the case of work, mentally transitioning from one project to the next requires a kind of brain reset that takes time (and coffee).


Bouncing gets worse the more targets one has to bounce between; a third app gives you more time to recharge your interest meter for the other two.


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There are solutions to problematic attention-bouncing. You could delete all your social media, but this is hard to stick to it makes it hard to keep in touch with people. Instead, you might consider deleting all your social media applications except one; yes, the one you keep will probably still be The Worst all on its own, but at least you won't bounce.


Or you can set timers on your devices that restrict those apps, but in addition to setting a maximum total time, set a maximum total number of application opens. The former protects against the needle in the haystack, but the latter protects more effectively against the lottery wheel, i.e. against attention-bouncing.


More generally, it may help to close anything you're not using and only work on one thing at a time. Take the time to close your tabs and applications. Decide which chore to do before you stand up, and finish it before moving on. At least it'll make you aware of those transition costs and you can decide later on if they're worth it.

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