The Attention Drug Wars, Consumption Trances, and my SXSW 2012 panel

by Tristan Harris on August 31, 2011

“I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built, they’ve built their own prison. And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia, where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison. – “Escape! before it’s too late.”

–  My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Triggers and Consumption Trances

Facebook Twitter Attention SyringeI’ve been thinking deeply about what BJ Fogg calls the “trigger wars.” When your phone buzzes to tell you “Someone has favorited your tweet!” or you receive an email that “Someone tagged you in a photo on Facebook” – those are triggers.

Triggers can be emails, push notifications, SMS messages or anything that interrupts people and lures them back into a product. Since people quickly forget what apps they downloaded last month, triggers are the dirty but standard tactic to remind them to come back.

The most successful companies use frequent triggers to acquire users, but there’s also a dark-side.

Beyond employing triggers to draw users back into the site or app, businesses need users to spend as much time as possible on their sites. As such, they develop techniques to draw users into what I call “consumption trances.” A consumption trance is when you log on to Facebook aiming to quickly look up someone’s phone number, but instead you get sucked into random photos of your friend’s BBQ last weekend. You click through photos for about 15 minutes before “waking up” and wondering how you spent all that time browsing photos.

Let’s be clear: It’s not that last weekend’s BBQ photos aren’t valuable to you, they just aren’t valuable to you right now since you were trying to look up someone’s phone number.

Consumption on Auto-Pilot

Jar of M&MsI want to identify two issues here: (1) triggers, and (2) consumption trances, which together form a dangerous combination.

Consumption trances are similar what Tim Ferriss calls domino foods in the food industry. You can try to eat just one, but good luck. Once there’s an open jar of M&M’s in front of you or some nice greasy french fries (both domino foods), you won’t stop eating. It’s almost as if your arm operates on auto-pilot as it feeds you each greasy fry. In the world of social media, infinite-scrolling news feeds or instant feedback photo slideshows work the same way. They create consumption trances through operant conditioning, creating addictive variable-schedule rewards as the next tweet that scrolls in, or the next photo appears in the slideshow.

Consumption trances are nothing new, but when you combine them with triggers that can reach you anywhere, they have a dangerous power to interrupt your day and put you into a consumption trance at any moment, and this is what really worries me.

Triggers are the new arms race

Even worse, suppose a new company wants to compete with existing social media companies: they can’t win without joining the trigger arms race. They will need to send just as many emails and notifications as everyone else to keep up. Just like Coca-Cola and Pepsi need to keep advertising to retain their position in consumer’s minds, Quora, Instagram, Sosh, Klout need to send just as many notifications to own a position in your daily routine.

Everyone has to play dirty to win.

Or look at Google and it’s recent decision to battle Facebook with its own social network, Google+.

Prior to the trigger wars, Larry Page and Sergey Brin said their goal was to get you off of the Google.com results page as fast as possible, and onto your destination. Now, Google needs you to stay on Google+ and come back as often as possible to post links, share updates, comment on friend’s posts, etc. They can’t do this without triggers and consumption trances. That’s why you see a distracting Red Notification box in the top-right corner of Google.com now, and it’s probably why you’re still getting all those Google+ email invites. It’s not great for users, but how else can companies compete?

Finding solutions at SXSW

So what are solutions to the trigger wars? Well we’re putting together a rockstar panel with BJ FoggLinda Stone and Kathy Sierra to discuss!

BJ is Professor at Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab and a leading expert on behavior change design. Linda has studied and written extensively about “continuous partial attention.” And Kathy is a leading expert on creating passionate users of products, and saw the trigger wars coming many years before any of us did.

We’ll defer to talking more in Austin 2012, but here are some of my early ideas:

  • Defining moral standards: We need better ways of reasoning about when triggers could be good or bad, and what ‘badness’ or ‘goodness’ of a decision regulating triggers might mean. This requires deep philosophical thought and understanding when triggers cross the line into being harmful or generative to addiction.
  • Moral commitments: Maybe we need a “hippocratic oath” for social designers or some type of Geneva convention to define ground rules for companies’ use of triggers, and ensure that they respect the privilege of user’s attention and focus.
  • Setting better defaults: We can come up with better defaults settings for notifications, or set caps on the number & frequency of notifications in a day, week or month. For example, it’s acceptable to receive emails when someone @replies you on Twitter if it happens once a month, but it’s horribly distracting if it happens multiple times per day.
  • Better awareness and education: Maybe we need educational media like “Countdown to Zero,” but instead of raising awareness about reducing our nuclear arsenals, it’s to raise awareness about the danger of addictions induced by triggers and .
  • Better attention-measurement tools: We need new quantified-self products like RescueTime that help us understand how we spend time or get interrupted. Or maybe we can build a Grand Central station for incoming notifications to happen at a later time.

At the end of the day, there is a physics to our brains. Constant interruption and quick jolts of pleasure will not produce happiness but cheap and possibly harmful addictions. That’s not a world we want to live in, so let’s design a better way!

⬇ Please vote up our panel!

vote her on sxsw panel picker

Speaker list:

BJ Fogg BJ Fogg
Trained as an experimental psychologist, Dr. B.J. Fogg directs research and design at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. The lab’s mission is to create insight into how computing products–from websites to mobile phone software–can be designed to change people beliefs and behaviors. BJ is the author of “Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.”

Twitter: BJFogg

Linda Stone Linda Stone
Widely recognized as a visionary thinker and thought leader, Linda Stone is a writer, speaker and consultant focused on trends and their strategic and consumer implications. Articles on her work have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, Harvard Business Review, and hundreds of blogs. She has spoken at Supernova, the ETech conference, GEL, the Hidden Brain Task Force for the Center for Work-Life Policy. She was invited by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to speak to the Medici gathering of positive psychologists, an invitation-only gathering of leaders in this field.

Twitter: lindastone

Kathy Sierra Kathy Sierra
Kathy Sierra is the co-creator of the bestselling Head First books (the brain-friendly series from O’Reilly), and creator of the Creating Passionate Users blog. She has been interested in the brain and artificial intelligence since her days as a game developer (Virgin, Amblin’, MGM). Kathy’s passions are skiing, running, her Icelandic horse, gravity, and her latest favorite thing–Dance Dance Revolution.
Tristan Harris
Tristan is CEO & Co-founder of Apture, a company that makes it frictionless to get more information without leaving the page. Rated #16 in Inc. Magazine’s Top 30 Entrepreneurs under 30, Tristan was a Mayfield Fellow with the Stanford Technology Ventures Program in entrepreneurship. Prior to Apture, Tristan invented patented information navigation and browsing interfaces now shipping in the Mac OS X operating system. His work has been featured in the NYTimes, Economist, and he has given talks in conferences and universities across the world, including at MIT Media Lab and Stanford University.

Twitter: Tristan Harris

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kathy Sierra 08.31.11 at 6:45 pm

You had me at Linda Stone (a friend and co-conspirator). And BJ Fogg just keeps coming up with usable answers to really tricky problems. So, though I was not even planning to go to SXSW again… I am so in. :)

Linda has my contact info.

2 Heather 12.12.11 at 11:47 am

You will have answers to our Twitter addictions? Great! I get to the edge of launching my computer off a high place at times, then just “unsubscribe” from all the crap in my inbox ;)

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