Are companies highjacking our brains?
What Internet is doing to our brains is something I keep thinking about. Technology is thought to improve our lives. Among other, it connects us with people around the world or automates work that had to be done manually in the past. It is everywhere, not only on our computers or mobile devices but in our watch, in our TV, in the cars that we drive... Internet was a tremendous revolution, and a lot of companies are running their businesses on it. They offer all kind of services of which we are users:
- The task management app that we use to track our daily tasks.
- The running app that tracks my workouts and shows me how people around me are doing.
- The platform that allows me to buy grocery stuff and get it delivered to my place in a matter of hours.
- The gossip apps that let me know about everyone's life.
The amount of services, apps, and Internet-based products that we can find nowadays is huge. You can subscribe to ProductHunt to get an idea of how many of them are being launched every day. Creating a company has never been so easy, you don't even need an office, or a lot of bureaucracy (there are also startups that help you with that). These Internet-based companies need a service to offer, and users that are the source of incomes and that make the business sustainable.
Users are a crucial element in any company because having a lot of users is something positive. It is a signal of an excellent service, and also of potential high revenue. That's why the number of users is usually a KPI for many companies (A Key Performance Indicator is a measurable value that demonstrates how effectively a company is achieving key business objectives). For companies that have no clear business model and have to appeal to investors having a high number of users is critical. For the investor it means, well if they don't have enough revenue it is ok, it might come in the future, or the company will get acquired, and I'll get money back.
Take my money and find any strategy to have a business model or get attractive to potential buyers.
Getting users to use your service, and retain them is something very tricky. You can use marketing campaigns and target people on different social networks, you can build something with tremendous value for people and expect it to expand organically, or you can get people addicted to your service/product and leverage that sort of brain manipulation to grow your business. I know it sounds creepy when you read it, but it's something many companies are appealing to.
Our brain likes stimulus. Brains feel good when they are given something that they want, something that they don't need a lot of energy to process. Stimulating brains in the past was harder because we weren't that connected. If they tried to stimulate us to sell us something we could easily ignore them. Nowadays is very easy to sell us whatever they want, or be the product they want us to be to sell ourselves to companies. They successfully built a habit on us that they are leveraging to manipulate us towards their business goals. It's most times invisible to us because it's covered up in a way that we don't perceive what their final goal is.
- Have you ever wondered why your Facebook timeline is infinite?
- Have you ever wondered why Instagram strive to add more filters and features to their stories?
- Have you ever wondered why push notifications exist?
It's not because they want a better world, or because they want us to be more social than ever. It's just simply because they want us to be addicted. Addiction means control, and control can be used to manipulate people towards specific goals, in case of a company business profitability and success. We are increasing their KPIs towards future pitches in front of investors, or getting more money from marketers.
Sad but true many companies are doing this sort of practices nowadays. And they can do it with no control at all from any regulatory law or organization. As I said many of these methods are covered up, and we can't see the impact they have in the society until they are extensively used. By the time we realize it, it's too late to give any step back:
- Could we have prevented all the people that are addicted to Instagram stories nowadays, sharing every single moment of their days, or watching other people's lives to have some gossip to talk about?
- Could we have prevented, that unconscious think in our brain that makes feel that we are missing something if we are not using our phone or computer?
- Could we have prevented new generations spending a lot of time playing online or catching Pokemons on the street rather than playing football or going for a walk?
Probably we could have, but who cared? The prevention of these things requires an analysis from angles companies don't usually care about. They are driven by KPIs so looking from angles like the social impact, or the ethics (that don't help with increasing KPIs) is not worth the effort.
- Who cares whether people have problems communicating with other people in the real world if they can do it using my product without any problem?
- Who cares if people suffer from anxiety problems because of the social pressure my product can create?
- Who cares if people have issues socializing if the online version of them don't?
Not many companies care, no one can force them to care, but they hypocritically seem to care.
We, developers are told when we work for any company that one of the most important goals is to increase some given KPIs that will make the business successful. When discussions are going on about how to increase those numbers, we rarely think about the users. We instead think about them as a mean and not as a human with feelings, problems, goals. The only angles that are considered when it comes to planning new features are typically:
- Does it increase number X?
- How should it be shaped in a way that user likes it?
- Is feasible technically speaking? Is there any limitation?
We are so KPI and business-driven that we forget that we are building something for users not leveraging users.
It's been proven the negative impact that manipulation is having on people's brain. We developers and designers can help raise awareness in our companies and people around us. We humans, have a mind with an enormous capacity to think, feel and connect with other people and we shouldn't let all these companies numb our minds. It's all in our hands. We can raise the awareness and say no to these practices. We can open up discussions where KPIs are not the only discussion point. The less we use our mind, the easier will be to manipulate and not only by companies that want us to sell products but by governments that want us to believe in them. Use your brain, don't be a product, and make the most of the life with yourself, friends and family.