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Should we treat addictive web apps like drugs?

What if Facebook (s fb)is nothing more than a digital drug dealer and we’re all just junkies? It’s a provocative stance, but it has merit. And as we head toward a future where technology is not just something we do, but a part of our biology, that question raises a whole slew of ethical concerns about what technology is and what it should be.

I’ve heard it proposed before, but never as eloquently as by artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris at Wednesday’s Data Science Summit in Las Vegas. Harris’s latest project is a tool about which he didn’t give specifics, but about which he did share some of his thinking. Part of that is the idea that the present is “a staging ground for the future.” We need to figure out what we want our technology to be or risk becoming beholden to it.

Broadly speaking, he said, there are two types of web platforms — healers and dealers. Healers are marketplace-type platforms such as Etsy or Amazon (s amzn), or presumably Quora, that solve problems for users (e.g., I need to buy something) and then let them leave and go about their day. Dealers are attention-demanding platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that want to keep users on as long as possible so they can place as many ads in front of them as possible.

If you think the characterization of the latter group as dealers is unfair, Harris will point you to phrases and words — including the all-too-common “addictive” — that permeate discussions about new Silicon Valley web startups. That’s drug dealer talk. Facebook, he pointed out, actually uses the word “serotonin” internally to assess whether users will form tight-enough bonds with new features. (For what it’s worth, though, I’m pretty sure I know a few Etsy addicts.)

Jonathan Harris

And while he acknowledged that heavy app usage might not seem like a big problem now — it’s just a way to kill time and we can always turn off our iPads or laptops — Harris said we need to keep an eye toward the future. A decade or two from now, when he have chips implanted in our skin and nanobots fighting disease in our bloodstream, technology won’t just be something we do, but will be a part of us. What we do now at an institutional level to keep from becoming slaves to web apps could affect how we regulate our relationships with these far more-serious types of technology down the road.

I think Harris is onto something — we are being manipulated to some degree by platform developers who spend their days thinking about how to scientifically control our behavior to their benefit — although I can’t imagine what the solution might be. Harris raised the idea of an FDA-like agency for regulating web applications, but that’s neither feasible nor desirable. Not only would trying to regulate the effects of software be nearly impossible, it would also kill innovation and border on being unconstitutional. A code of ethics could work to a degree, but self-regulation and money go together like (to quote a Saturday Night Live skit that I will never forget) Hi-C and turkey.

Maybe the answer is just good, old-fashioned self-control. Individuals need to consider the consequences of their behavior and act accordingly. That seems to have worked well for drug addiction and obesity rates in America, and voters always think about the big picture come election season. Oh, never mind. I’m out of ideas (and also a little afraid of the future). Do you have any, or is app addiction not even a problem at all?

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Luis Luoro; Harris photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

12 Responses to “Should we treat addictive web apps like drugs?”

  1. Nir Eyal

    I agree that we need to become more aware of the addictive potential of technologies that have greater access to us, collect more personal data, and at faster speeds than ever before. This is a recipe for everything that is wired becoming more addictive. I’ve been writing about habit design on my blog at:

  2. Barry Dennis

    Each “new” thing in the Internet space does indeed attract followers, some curious, some addicted, some -marketers mostly-manipulative. It might be helpful to note that the current trend in infrastructure and app development leads to Convergence AAA (AnyThing, AnyTime, AnyWhere). We will soon see-are already seeing-home health aps, tons of home education app’s, work-at-home is growing rapidly, and more to come. The limiting factors include more bandwidth and spectrum for the inevitable “mostly wireless” Internet I expect, and more clearly defined and managed separation between Social and other applications that serve equally desirable purposes-think LinkedIn vs. Facebook, even SalesForce vs. Twitter. Many “service” providers are still trying to be “everything for everybody,” a recipe for failure and dilution of audience credibility if ever there was one.

  3. Susan McWhirter

    I had to share this article, I was one of the people just playing the games, now I use it to see what people like and need. Thank you for this great information

  4. There are “addictive” techs and there are not. And it is not only FB or Twitter, who invented that.
    Take more than 50 years old TV technology, for example. Or radio…
    TV channels are producing a hell amount of visual information just to keep you watching… Watching ads.

    So as FB and Google (YouTube). 99% of media business models are based on user’s “addiction”. Grabbing user’s interest and keeping it.

    I was playing Civ3 every evening and night during 2 months, when I was 22.
    And I know, this kind of game addiction can be healed only if you consume it without limitation. You consume it till the moment you start to hate it.
    It works for me. It should work for others as well.

    Same for TV. I spent about 72 hours in a row stupidly watching TV.
    Now I don’t watch TV at all.

      • Derrick Harris

        That’s a fair point. I could argue there’s a difference because most other media aren’t as interactive and don’t involve as much social pressure. But, generally, you’re right — another reason regulation is next to impossible.

      • Well, interactivity in apps is like discovery of nuclear reaction.
        One can use it to create truly different educational experience (like Another one can use it to do “shoot ’em all” apps. Really up to developer to decide.
        I didn’t catch your point about “social pressure”. What do you mean? Why social pressure should force me to use FB or Twitter?

        • Derrick Harris

          There’s a pressure on some platforms, such as FB and Twitter, to always be on and be engaged in the conversation. Constant alerts, updates, etc., make sure you’re always reminded. My news sites or other media, for the most part, leave me alone.

  5. Glenn

    Whether you call it addiction or something else, there are people find it extremely difficult to stop playing certain games. Using myself as an example, before quitting, I was spening 5-10 hours a day playing mafia wars. What’s worse, I was playing even though I saw nothing redeeming or particularly fun about the game. I just wanted to level up or complete some holiday bonus. It was pitiful. After I realized I couldn’t simply cut back, I quit Facebook ‘cold turkey.’

    If it’s self-destructive but nearly impossible to quit… you might as well call it an addiction. (And no… I’m not calling for anyone to step in and save me from myself).