Cornell Information Science published research earlier this month that looked at (among other things) the difficulty some people have in quitting Facebook and other social networks. They even have a label for the failure to quit: “social media reversion.”
The study used data from a site called 99DaysofFreedom.com, which encourages people to stop using Facebook for 99 days.
The site and study are interesting because they revealed the difficulty people have quitting Facebook because of addiction. Participants intended to quit, wanted to quit and believed they could quit (for 99 days), but many couldn’t make more than a few days.
The addictive aspect of social networking is associated with FOMO — fear of missing out. Everyone is on Facebook. They’re posting things, sharing news and content and talking to each other 24/7.
The network effect itself is addicting, according to Instagram software engineer Greg Hochmuth, as quoted by The New York Times. (A network effect is the idea that any network becomes more valuable as more people connect to that network. The phone system is the best example of this phenomenon — you have to have a phone because everybody else has a phone.)
In fact, Hochmuth and artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris created a web experience called Network Effect. The site simulates the experience of browsing through social media by giving you a feed of people engaging on various activities. Then, after a few minutes, the site won’t let you watch anymore (for 24 hours) so you can experience the subtle withdrawal symptoms.
In the world of social networking, Facebook benefits most from network effect. Facebook happened to be the top social network when social networking busted out as a mainstream activity. Now, everybody’s on Facebook because everybody’s on Facebook. And even people who don’t like the social network use it anyway, because that’s where their family, friends and colleagues are — and because of addiction.
The contribution of network effect to the addictive quality of web sites is accidental. But social sites are also addictive by design.
YouTube is addictive, too, especially for people under the age of 20 or so, who use YouTube as their main source of entertainment. Serial YouTube video clicking is akin to the compulsion to TV channel-surf. You flip through the channels endlessly because surely something better must be on right now. YouTube is like TV, but with a billion channels.
What habitual young YouTubers are watching is a key to understanding why it’s addictive for them. Most of this watching involves videos where YouTube stars talk to the camera. Here’s an example. Here’s another. (Note how many viewers these videos are getting — it dwarfs the audiences of any TV show.)
Shows like these trick the human brain into feeling like the YouTuber star is talking directly to the viewer, and makes the viewer feel like they have a personal relationship with the person in front of the camera.