Facebook, the ultimate trip - and how it keeps you hooked video

ALEX LIU/STUFF.CO.NZ

Facebook is designed to keep you engaged, posting and distracted for as long as possible. Just exactly how does it do that?

Cocaine, heroin, slot machines - talk to an expert about the workings of Facebook and it's not long before the addiction analogies begin to crop up.

Most Facebook users have at some point logged into Facebook for a specific reason, and 10 minutes later found themselves lost in the abyss of their feed.

You do it by accident, but it's no accident at Facebook's end, says Seth Zorn, creative director at Wellington digital marketing agency Tailgunner Web & Communications, who has also worked in public relations for a number of addiction and health services.

"Facebook does nothing on a whim, everything is calculated with the aim to keep you interacting, to keep you addicted," Zorn says.

After all, without our posting, sharing, 'liking' and commenting, the website would die.

While we may not realise it, from the moment we log in, Facebook has utilised aspects of behavioral psychology and neuroscience to make sure we ​check our notifications, scroll through our newsfeeds, or post that great new photo.

Arguably, the lifeline of social media is our tendency to become hooked on things that make us feel good.

When we receive a like, a tag or a mention, dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasurable feelings, is released into the brain.

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It is similar to the brain pathways that are stimulated from delicious food, making money, sex, or taking a shot of heroin, Zorn says.

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It is also one of the reasons you might find that little red number on your notifications icon so difficult to ignore.

Facebook also plays on our inherent need for social acceptance. Allowing us to easily "like" and comment on "friends'" activity, Facebook has made maintaining friendships easier than ever before.

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Even if they are, as Zorn says, "like friendships on life support, being topped-up".

When you "like" that photo of an old school friend's puppy, it sufficiently maintains your association with that person, even if you are not close enough to want to comment, or visit.

But that interaction also provides Facebook with a valuable exchange of information, and in the world of social media, information means money.

Victoria University media studies lecturer Kathleen Kuehn includes Facebook in the realm of "sticky technology", sites which find ways of becoming ingrained into everyday life, and make it hard for you to quit. She herself would love to quit Facebook, but like many academics or company owners, it's become too ingrained in her professional life.

"They craft user experience to make you deeply invested in it," Kuehn says. "They're really good at being a convergent platform.

"You can use Facebook to log into other things, your contact list on your phone can be integrated, events and birthdays go into your calendar, and if you deleted Facebook, that would all go away."

Kuehn is currently researching the new ways in which Facebook ropes in users to do its work, saying, "They just offer the template, we do everything else".

"When you check into a place or restaurant, if it hasn't been checked into very much or reviewed, they'll ask you a series of questions about it like if it's good for dancing, how the wi-fi is, or if you want to add hours of operation. So you actually do the work for Facebook.

"You can see how the functions evolve over time too. It seems like every time interest starts to slip they roll out some new feature like the 'memories', or the way they've employed facial recognition technology that suggests tagging your friends, all sorts of things to kind of trap you in and keep you productive and engaging on the site."

One of the things that keeps us coming back is Facebook's seamlessness, fellow Victoria University School of design lecturer Walter Langelaar says. "Facebook is very good at presenting its users with interface functionality that is very seamless and well designed."

Is that a bad thing? "I don't necessarily see it all as very sinister, or a game Facebook is playing to try and get revenue, I definitely see the benefits, and the social glue that Facebook provides.

"I do believe that now people are very connected to each other in different, quick, and efficient ways, and there are a lot of benefits to it. I just think it's a bit crappy that it's run by companies," he says.

"While they are supposedly providing you with a service, it's actually you who is working for them, not the other way around. That's why it's important for them to employ these tactics."

One thing to remember, says Langelaar, is that if you can use a product for free, then most likely, you are the product.

He's never had an account himself. "They still call it 'social networking', but in various other ways you could also call it 'anti-social networking'," he says.

 - Stuff

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