As any of us who’ve been sucked into a YouTube fugue know, it’s hard to escape the self-recrimination cycle of online overuse. We blame ourselves for our lack of self-control – and the many lifehacking tips and even hilarious cartoons on the subject support that sense of personal failure.
But, Michael Schulson argues (in his recent article “User Behaviour” in Aeon), it’s becoming more apparent that people get addicted to the Internet because of the nature of the experience itself, and not because they’re weak. Moreover, that addictive nature is engineered to hook as many users as hard as possible, all in aid of upping page views and increasing ad revenue. We are living in a digital world where having an item for sale in a website’s “room” is less lucrative than monetizing entry through its “door”:
“They equip them with sensors. Each time you go through one, someone gets paid. Immediately, some people will start adding a lot of new doors. Other people will build rooms that are largely empty, but that function as waystations, designed to get as many people as possible to enter and leave. […]
We call these doors ‘advertisements’. This architecture creates a rather strange effect, because while the ostensible goal of Slate is to get people into its rooms to read fine journalism, it actually gets paid by attracting people and then quickly sending them out – either to an advertiser’s website, or to another article. […]
At some point, you no longer make money by building excellent rooms. You make money by figuring out how to get people to pass through as many doors as possible – to have them scanning across the web, that scrolling hallway of doors, in a state of constant motion, click-click-clicking away.”
Schulson’s ultimate recommendation is to acknowledge the true cause of Internet addiction, and require websites and companies to assist users in not falling into the dopamine trap – if that’s not what they came to say, Wikipedia, to do. This could range from mandating a “distraction dashboard,” where users could set their own limits and reminder times before they start surfing; to a self-reporting function, where time spent (or wasted) is quantified clearly for a user – after all, Twitter, Facebook, and gaming sites already generate that info for themselves.
In short, he advises regulation. That sounds scary, but it could actually open the Internet experience up to more functionality for its users – if we could just end the judgmental culture surrounding us.