By Heather Clancy
May 24, 2016

Facebook’s “Trendghazi” scandal has raged into its third week of headlines, with thousands of news articles about CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s meeting with conservative leaders, on top of Glenn Beck’s most favored nation maneuvering, some deep dives, some even deeper dives, and last night’s open letter to Sen. John Thune from Facebook.

As long as this story continues to fuel the image of Facebook as an evil, plotting boogeyman and conservatives as the outraged victims, I imagine the media will continue to strangle new angles out of this story for the rest of the election.

Meanwhile, a much more scandalous article published over the weekend failed to make the same waves. “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds” by Tristan Harris, a former design ethics and product philosopher at Google, describes in detail the fascinating and terrifying ways that just about every consumer Internet product from Facebook and LinkedIn to Gmail and Netflix manipulates users in the name of boosting the most powerful, and profitable, metric on the web: engagement.

By Harris’s description, we’re helpless against Big Internet’s time-sucking magic tricks, because Big Internet preys on our need for social approval, our sense of social obligation, and our innate psychological weaknesses for slot machine-like rewards. It’s a compelling case. How else do you explain the stat that Facebook and Facebook Messenger claim an astounding average of 50 minutes of their users’ time per day?

Sure, more engagement means these services are doing something right—if people don’t like Facebook (or Gmail, or LinkedIn, or Netflix), they are free to not use it. The problem is these services are ingrained into our lives. Not using email, or a messaging service all your friends use, or to be extreme, a smartphone, is inconvenient and impractical.

Rather than shrug off precious hours lost inside social media apps as a cost of modern living, Harris has created a consumer advocacy group for tech products, which he hopes can do the same thing for screen time that the “organic” label did for food. It’s an intriguing idea—not the kind of thing that’ll spawn 753,000 news articles, but I think it’s worth at least one.

Erin Griffith is a writer at Fortune. Follow her on Twitter or drop her an email.

This essay is part of “A Boom With a View.” Find past editions of Data Sheet.

 

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