Facebook may be exploiting human psychology, but is that a bad thing?

11/10/2017 04:10 pm ET

Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, Facebook’s first President, and the cool guy played by Justin Timberlake in the Social Network, recently had something to say about Facebook's increasingly tighter grip on its users.

JD Lasica, Flickr

Sean Parker described himself as "something of a conscientious objector" to social media.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'"

As with any other sort of optimization, it’s about finding people’s triggers and frustrations to make a more seamless experience.

"It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."

Parker noted that Facebook exploits the human desire for acceptance and validation in order to keep people hooked on the platform.

While Facebook and other social networks certainly do have some sort of growth and engagement optimization tactics in place, we shouldn’t completely dismiss them as evil.

Think of how many relationships you’ve been able to maintain at scale.

If the product is free, you are the product.

Growing Past Dunbar’s Number

In the 1990s, a British anthropologist named Robert Dunbar suggested that individuals can only maintain stable social relationships with around 150 people. This cognitive limit was based on extrapolating the results from a correlation in primate brain size and average group size to humans. Dunbar describes the number as "the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar."

The number of average Facebook friends per user has been quoted at around 155 to 338, which although higher than Dunbar’s 150, might still be comparatively low to most active users.

While Facebook does deal with an unsettling amount of data and is constantly getting flak for undermining the intimacy of relationships, we’ve got to give credit where credit is due. You can message anyone anywhere in the world and view their profiles for recent updates, and if you use the platform correctly, can breeze past Dunbar’s number with ease.

For example, I’ve helped start several Facebook groups with thousands of members, most of which I would have no problem getting a drink with. I’m not some super sociable wizard. I put my shirt on one head at a time, just like everyone else. Yet, I’m able to interact with hundreds of people a week without my brain exploding.

Facebook lets you essentially curate your circle of friends and what you want to see. You’ve even got the option to “take a break” from certain people.

Sure, you’re probably not going to have thousands of “best friends” at a time, but social media platforms have at least increased the opportunity to meet new potential best friends and maintain relationships in a seamless way.

Final Thoughts

Technological advancements in social media have essentially changed what a “stable relationship” really is.

Admittedly, social media can also exploit several human psychological vulnerabilities as described by Parker, but I do believe there is a healthy medium. The burden of responsibility falls on both Facebook and the end user.

Facebook and Instagram have made it obscenely easy to fall into a negative social feedback loop. This downward spiral leaves many users depressed from comparing their realities to the highlight reels of their friends. However, it has also taken strides to make more organic interactions possible.

The end user has the responsibility to not fall into a negative feedback loop, and essentially has the power to make their feed what they want. Want to hide updates from your high school friends? Done. Want to see more memes? Follow more meme pages. Want to keep close tabs on your family? Turn on profile updates for family members. Want to see more beautiful people in your timeline? Follow me.

Social media has been built to optimize our experience with the platforms for engagement. They want us on there.

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