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The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can't Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook

Stashed in: Interconnectedness!, Influence!, Addiction, Flow, Ethics, Gambling!, Feedback, Psychology!, You are the product., Active Users, Psychology, @alexismadrigal

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Ironically, Facebook does not allow animated gifs even though the gif is perfect for this.

Time to get past Facebook and invent a new future that is not Instagram or Snapchat:

I just re-read the article:

It's sad and amazing how addictive Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc, are.

Most people playing the machines aren’t there to make money. They know they’re not going to hit the jackpot and go home. As Roman Mars put it in a recent episode of his awesome podcast, 99% Invisible, on Schüll’s research: “It’s not about winning; it’s about getting into the zone.”

What is the machine zone? It’s a rhythm. It’s a response to a fine-tuned feedback loop. It’s a powerful space-time distortion. You hit a button. Something happens. You hit it again. Something similar, but not exactly the same happens. Maybe you win, maybe you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s the pleasure of the repeat, the security of the loop.

The Machine is the dark side of flow:

The machine zone is the dark side of “flow,” a psychological state proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In a flow state, there is a goal, rules for getting to the goal, and feedback on how that’s going. Importantly, the task has to match your skills, so there’s a feeling of “simultaneous control and challenge.”

In a 1996 Wired interview, Csíkszentmihályi described the state like this: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

Schüll sees a twist on this phenomenon in front of the new slot machines of Vegas, which incorporate tiny squirts of seeming control to amp up their feedback loops. But instead of the self-fulfillment and happiness that Csíkszentmihályi describes, many gamblers feel deflated and sad about their time on the slots.

The games exploit the human desire for flow, but without the meaning or mastery attached to the state. The machine zone is where the mind goes as the body loses itself in the task. “You can erase it all at the machines,” a gambler tells Schüll. “You can even erase yourself.”

You can get away from it all in the machine zone, but only as long as you stay there.

Images are essential to The Machine:

Facebook is the single largest photo sharing service in the world. In 2008, when the site had 10 billion photographs archived, users pulled up 15 billion images per day. The process was occurring 300,000 per second. Click. Photo. Click.

In 2010, Facebook had uploaded 65 billion images, and they were served up at a peak rate of 1 million per second. By 2012, Facebook users were uploading 300 million photos per day. And early this year, Facebook announced users had entrusted them with 240 billion photos.

If we assume the ratio of photos uploaded to photos viewed has not declined precipitously, users are probably pulling up billions of Facebook photos per dayat a rate of millions per second. Click. Photo. Click.

It all adds up to a lot of time spent in the loop. According to a 2011 ComScore report, users spend 17 percent of their time on the site exclusively browsing photos (which as Inside Facebook notes, doesn’t include “time spent reading news feed stories and notifications generated by photo uploads”).

To put these numbers in perspective, ComScore’s 2013 Digital Focus report found that Facebook took 83 percent of the time spent on *all* social networks on the web. That means that of all the time spent on social networks, 14 percent of it occurs within this one behavioral loop. That’s more than all the time spent on Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn combined!

chart of time on social networks

Is it unethical to engineer for peoples' compulsions?

What Facebook and slot machines share is the ability to provide fast feedback to simple actions; they deliver tiny rewards on an imperfectly predictable “payout” schedule. These are coercive loops, distorting whatever the original intention of the user was. What began as “See a picture of person X” becomes “keep seeing more pictures.” The mechanism itself becomes the point.

The problem with giving people what they want:

You could argue that designers are simply giving the people what they want. The data says people spend a lot of time looking at pictures; so, Facebook serves up the pictures. Simple as that.

Engagement is usually the currency of the social network realm. Since it’s much harder to measure whether someone is actually enjoying an experience than it is to measure the number of minutes someone spends doing it, engagement is typically measured by time. And so, Silicon Valley has made the case to itself (and to the users of its software) that we are voting with our clicks.

But there’s a problem. A definition of “what people want” got smuggled in with the data. The definition starts logically: People go to sites they like. But then it gets wobblier. They say that the more time you spend on a site or part of a site, the more you like it. Of course, that completely elides the role the company itself plays in shaping user behavior to increase consumption. And it ignores that people sometimes (often?) do things to themselves that they don’t like. Who “likes” spending hours flipping channels—and yet it’s been a core part of the American experience for decades.

What if the 400 minutes a month people spend on Facebook is mostly (or even partly) spent in the machine zone, hypnotized, accumulating ad impressions for the company?

Here’s my contention: Thinking about the machine zone and the coercive loops that initiate it has great explanatory power. It explains the “lost time” feeling I’ve had on various social networks, and that I’ve heard other people talk about. It explains how the more Facebook has tuned its services, the more people seem to dislike the experiences they have, even as they don’t abandon them. It helps explain why people keep going back to services that suck them in, even when they say they don’t want to.

It helps me understand why social media, which began with the good intention of connecting people, has become such a fraught subject. Among the tech savvy, it is seen as an act of bravery to say, “I love Facebook.”

Because designers and developers interpreted maximizing “time on site,” “stickiness,” “engagement,” as giving people what they wanted, they built a system that elicits compulsive responses from people that they later regret.

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