John Herrman at the New York Times writes:
When platforms or services sense their users are disengaged, whether from social activities, work or merely a continued contribution to corporate profitability, dots are deployed: outside, inside, wherever they might be seen. I’ve met dots that existed only to inform me of the existence of other dots, new dots, dots with almost no meaning at all; a dot on my Instagram app led me to another dot within it, which informed me that something had happened on Facebook: Someone I barely know had posted for the first time in a while. These dots are omnipresent, leading everywhere and ending nowhere. So maybe there’s something to be gained by connecting them.
I have been trying out a new approach to social networking lately: not using them – at least not using them the way they are intended. I’ve installed Facebook News feed blockers on both my phone and my work computer. Still, even when I get the impulse to visit Facebook, even though there’s no feed greeting me, there’s that little globe at the upper right corner of the screen with a red badge affixed to it. A news organization went live hours ago, an event is coming up today and two of my friends are going, someone posted in “cool pizza group” (a cool group devoted to pizza).
These badges really do represent a disregard for the user; they promise something that needs addressing but rarely represent that. They are advertisements for users to keep using their phone.
Twitter, for its part, is egregious in its use of badges to spur engagement. If one stays off of Twitter for more than two days, reopening the application presents a numbered badge, but doesn’t usually show engagement on the user’s tweets. Rather, it shows stuff that happened on Twitter. A person one follows just liked another’s tweet. Things like that. If someone is highly engaged, Twitter does not think to show users these things: It knows you are a captive audience. As someone’s who has been off the service for more than a month, I shudder to think of the things Twitter thinks I want.
(Also, for a brief period of time on Twitter’s iOS app, years ago, the app made it so users could not even disable the application’s system-level badge from notification settings. How this was even possible from a development standpoint puzzles me.)
David Zweig at the New Yorker wrote about a tool that removes metrics from Twitter. The badges remain, but retweet, like, follower counts and tweet age are all removed. In this new, metric-less world, Zweig found relief and comfort of not seeing the popularity contest that the social media site often is.
These sort of user-facing metrics that encourage are nothing new: Internet forums, pre-social media, showed number of posts and rewarded users based on post count, often with a new user title. However, there is something insidious about how the modern websites that eat up so much of our time exploit its users’ attention in the name of financial gain.
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