It shouldn’t come as any surprise that social media is addictive. It’s designed to be. Product designers at top social media apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram rely on a process coined by Nir Eyal called a “hook model.” They tap into psychological behaviours to design and build addictive products… on purpose.
This past week, I’ve been attending the BAD (Behaviour and Design) Conference, and it has been very insightful. The first talk that I attended was Dr. Jessica Cameron‘s UX Myth Busting presentation. One of the myths that she busted was around the concept of using engagement as a metric in product design and user experience. She explained that “engagement” as we know it cannot be a reliable metric for success, as it relies heavily on the addiction imposed by these hook models.
So, if we apply this lens to ourselves as People Who Create Content for Social Media (whether that be for your business, or leisure), what does this mean when we examine the engagement that we see on our own posts?
When someone in your audience double-taps on your Instagram photo, are they doing it because they actually enjoy the content, or are they motivated by seeking their social media “fix”? If your Instagram Reel goes viral, is it because your content was so witty and valuable that 30k people simply had to pause their day to watch it? Or have they been scrolling for hours chasing the 30 second high of content that does resonate with them, but have to dig through a hundred forgettable Reels to get that single moment of pay off?
The more that you examine the social media addiction of the average user, the harder it is to get excited that your photo as X likes and your Reel has Y views. We all know that quantity doesn’t equal quality, so why do we keep chasing these meaningless forms of validation?
Well, I suppose it’s because we’re also addicted in the same way. We end up in our own hooked loop where we keep creating to seek validation and approval, the same way that our audiences keep coming back hoping to find something that will set off a spark for themselves.
Also in her talk, Dr. Cameron spoke about how some social media content is purposefully fed to the user even if the algorithm knows it won’t interest the user. You can see examples of this when you notice a notification but the content is about another follower’s activity or a group that you’re not even a member of. These are purposefully placed to pique your interest, and then bring you crashing back down with the disappointment of not finding that content engaging, which in turn makes you seek out content that you do find engaging.
That means that your content could be used as bait in this way! A user might be seeing it, and even engaging with it, but not because it’s the kind of content they crave, but because it deliberately isn’t. And your piece of content is just the one that was chosen to bide the time before the algorithm decides it’s time to loop someone back in.
So, I guess it’s just a bit of food for thought. The next time you’re counting on a particular metric to measure your own success, and by extension perhaps your own self worth and the value that you bring to the online space, reflect on if these numbers reflect actual engagement, or if your audience is just more addicted to social media than you might think!