Facebook has announced that it is rolling out features to help us spend less time on Facebook or Instagram.
At face value, this is a surprising move for a company that has taken so many steps to create a platform that we return to over and over again (e.g., via notifications), to maximise the amount of time that we spend on the platform (e.g., by manipulating the feed or starting videos automatically), and which are highly addictive (e.g., receiving likes and comments on our posts releases a bit of dopamine, the reward molecule).
So, what could explain this move?
I think that there were two forces at play.
The first could be a desire to avoid regulation. Facebook has been under-fire for the impact of their platform on individual (e.g., mental illness) and societal well-being (e.g., fake news). So, just like car manufacturers started offering seat belts to improve travellers’ safety and improve the brands’ image, social media companies might be offering these mechanisms to improve their users’ well-being and improve the companies’ images, before they are forced to do it (as was in the case of the tobacco industry).
The second could be that limiting our time on the platform may actually be good for business. At the moment, many of us are scrolling these platforms mindlessly – out of boredom, with little or no attention to what is on the screen. Yet, as James Williams explains in the book Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy, the business model of social media companies is to capture our attention, so that they can sell us ads. I think that the new mechanisms, by limiting the number of times that I am going to check Facebook and/or how much time I am going to spend on the platform, will lead to more intentional browsing. And if I am more engaged with what is in front of me, then I am going to pay more attention to whatever adverts appear in the middle of my friends’ posts.
Do you agree?