We can’t help it. We’re browsing the internet innocuously and some article grabs us: “Jim Carrey Sickened by Will Smith’s Oscar Win Standing Ovation.” One article quickly becomes ten more.
We quickly find ourselves on social media embroiled in arguments about the latest JK Rowling tweet. The arguments beget more arguments. Hours pass without us noticing.
We turn to porn and find we can’t just look away. It’s not about getting off, it’s about consuming as much as we can. We keep needing to find one more video. There is no saturation point.
What’s going on here?
It is hijacking your attention. Porn can seemingly over-saturate your sexual needs and put a chill on your bedroom. Social media can overstimulate the sense of socialization and make us feel like we don’t want to be around other people. If attention is a finite resource, these things are draining our supply of it and starving out everything else.
We have imperfect evolutionary cues that tell us when to be sexually stimulated or alarmed. Since these cues are flawed, they can be hijacked by fake stimuli that are more stimulating than the real one. Porn can literally press the sexual stimuli pleasure button better than seeing your partner naked. Social media and clickbait can do the same for your sense of danger, disgust, or socialization.
These fake stimuli that are better at triggering our evolutionary cues are “supernormal stimulus”. Wikipedia gives the follow explanation:
A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.
The reason why I like the supernormal stimuli theory better than any kind of addiction metaphor is twofold:
- It correctly sets the relationship of the stimulus producer as a kind of attacker, instead of the consumer being an addict. This isn’t just nice to our sensibilities, it’s a reflection of reality. Social media algorithms are designed to target us and hijack our attention. Clickbait is designed to make us choose it over more accurate sources. Porn is meant to get you to watch more porn and not go get laid.
- It better explains the (lack of) relapse behavior. Even in talking to people who label themselves as porn addicted, while the porn is providing something there is no “withdrawal”. There is no sense that porn is needed - just that it’s hard to stop. The same goes for social media and other types of supernormal stimulus. They consume a finite resource, but they don’t have this chemical pull back to them.
I want to focus on that first point in particular. It’s not that there is some passive set of social media or clickbait that we are just constantly tempted by and that can saturate our attention. We are facing an active attacker who is intentionally evolving and getting better by the day. It is reading our patterns and trying to bypass our defenses.
This is the point of “the algorithm” in most social media platforms. This is why you don’t get to have a chronological feed. It’s why you’re forced to see retweets and “tweets you might like”. It’s about building a better spear to stab you with. This isn’t an accident - it’s an ongoing assault.
There’s an intent piece to grapple with, given this loaded language I’m using. Nobody at Facebook or Twitter thinks of themselves as an attacker - they would say they are optimizing their “Key Performance Indicators”. They are optimizing engagement. They aren’t engaging in an attack - they’re just making their platform more interesting to users, and they want you to spend as much time as you can on their platform so they can make more money from you.
The reality though is that they are a predator. Your attention is a limited resource and they are competing for it. This attacker is willing to use your own evolutionary biology against you. They may not have an attackers intent but the difference to you is negligible and you must act treat it as an attack and respond appropriately.
What can you do? Let’s say you totally buy into this theory. Do you buy a cabin out in the woods and hide away from the internet? What about the newspaper? We had clickbait before we had computers after all.
I don’t think totally abstaining is a solution. You can’t deal with attackers by constantly retreating. You have to defend and counter-attack. Retreat when it makes sense.
If Facebook and Twitter are your weakness and you aren’t going to win against them (and they’ve been designed to make your self-control fail) then yes, do abstain. Retreat. Don’t use those platforms that manipulate you and press your evolutionary pleasure buttons.
Defend yourself. Remove advertisements aggressively with tools like uBlock. Use extensions that remove “bait” like BetterTwitter and Facebook Adblock Remove your data by submitting deletion requests and partition your data with tools like Firefox Containers If you want to enjoy some porn or Facebook then set a timer - make sure you’re acting to an end and not just getting hijacked.
Counter-attack. Tell your family about how Facebook or other platforms hijack your attention. Actually pick up a phone and call them or setup a video call instead of depending on your social feed to update them. Share your photos by print or by using a private service that respects you and your attention. Best yet, stop feeding the beast and don’t post or interact with any content on these platforms.
These platforms will continue growing more sophisticated as attention hijackers. We have to recognize them as an active threat and respond.