At the time of writing, the author holds stock positions in Facebook and Salesforce.)
People spend 1 billion hours a day on YouTube. That’s enough person-hours to build 142 Empire State Buildings every single day.
The amount of time and energy consumed by entertainment technology and social media is staggering. An NBC News analysis suggested Facebook alone was responsible for up to $3 trillion in lost productivity.
While social media clearly has many benefits, it raises questions about whether these interactions could be translated into tangibly productive activity — and still be enjoyable. Can all this brainpower be channeled in novel ways to create new and enriching byproducts?
The most “liked” Instagram post of all time is a picture of Kylie Jenner’s newborn baby clutching Kylie’s perfectly manicured thumbnail. It’s a great picture; Oxford University research actually suggests cuteness plays an innate role in baby caregiving. However, tech firms and content creators can now take advantage of how we’re wired on a scale never before seen. Now, the beneficiary isn’t the baby who gets taken care of by his/her entire village. It’s the big tech company that sells more ads or a celebrity cosmetics startup that gets free marketing.
It’s unclear whether it’s healthy for 18 million people to obsess over a stranger’s baby. But it’s worth noting that, if each person looked at that picture for 10 seconds, that sums to roughly 25 person-years of effort (assuming an eight-hour workday). That’s even more time than it took to develop Instagram itself.
Unsurprisingly, Google’s, Facebook’s and Twitter’s true “product” is advertising. Advertising-based business models are a dominant paradigm in tech, and they’re vastly more effective with more user attention. This generates not only more ad impressions but also valuable data advertisers use for hyper-targeting.
Cutthroat competition for ad spend has created an arms race. Technology has become ever more captivating in a Darwinian way. As we use it, more A/B tests are run and more data is generated. It’s all used to make these products even more engaging — to the point of arguably becoming addictive. More than half of Facebook users say they use Facebook “several times” a day.
Recently some prominent tech leaders have voiced concerns about social media and the vast amount of data some companies are collecting:
“Facebook is the new cigarettes. It’s addictive. It’s not good for you.” – Marc Benioff, CEO, Salesforce
“The narrative that some companies will try to get you to believe is: ‘I’ve got to take all of your data to make my service better.’ … it’s a bunch of bunk” – Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
Are you truly enriched by that funny cat video the genius algorithms know you’ll “like”? Are we at risk of a technology-driven attention singularity, where these products become such an irresistibly enjoyable black hole of our time — leveraging every quirk about what we humans find interesting — that they detract from productive activity? It’s a world where we’re all zombies involuntarily gazing at our own navels. The consequences would be devastating.