Why You Can’t Quit Social Media

What is the fuel of our social media habits? To answer that question researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles analyzed user behavior across established social media platforms. They offer insights into user habit formation, but also explain the dynamics and technology that prevent users from gaining control over the daily-use habits on social media.

tl;dr

If platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are the engines of social media use, what is the gasoline? The answer can be found in the psychological dynamics behind consumer habit formation and performance. In fact, the financial success of different social media sites is closely tied to the daily-use habits they create among users. We explain how the rewards of social media sites motivate user habit formation, how social media design provides cues that automatically activate habits and nudge continued use, and how strong habits hinder quitting social media. Demonstrating that use habits are tied to cues, we report a novel test of a 2008 change in Facebook design, showing that it impeded posting only of frequent, habitual users, suggesting that the change disrupted habit automaticity. Finally, we offer predictions about the future of social media sites, highlighting the features most likely to promote user habits.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Habits and the electronic herd: The psychology behind social media’s successes and failures by Ian A. Anderson and Wendy Wood at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/arcp.1063

(Source: Getty Images/iStockphoto)


Social media platforms serve our communities in a variety of functions. Anybody can participate, share stories or become a community leader by creating user-generated content that is available to a specific group of people or the entire public. Connecting with people is human, but the frequency, means and reach as well as the how and who we connect with is not. In particular the dichotomy of conflicting social interests and user habits is discussed in this paper, which explains on a high level fundamental social media platform’s need to draw on user habits and how these habits are cultivated by sophisticated technology. In  fact, social media platforms are designed to encourage habit formation through repeat use. This is demonstrated by its ever-expanding options to find new people to connect and share content, new entertainment products and means to build larger online communities. This is to generate consistent revenue through effective, targeted marketing of its users.

One aspect of the paper explores whether frequent use of social media is habitual use and if overuse is tantamount to an addiction. What are the contributing factors that make people form a habit to frequently check their social media profiles? How can you manage these habits more effectively? What does it take to rewire these habits? The researchers found that users who post more frequently also reported increased automation of their actions. In other words, these users logged onto Facebook or Twitter posted about something without deliberately thinking about the act of posting itself. Some of the factors that contribute to forming a habit are the repeated steps it takes to participate on social media. For example, the login process, posting original content, exploring new content from others, liking, sharing or discussing content. In psychology this phenomenon is called ideomotor response wherein a user unconsciously completes an order of steps to perform a process. Of course the formation of a habit is not only due to repetition but rewards of continuous use. Likes, shares and general interaction with people on social media are a double-edged sword for it brings us closer together while also appealing to our subconscious need for affirmation. The former helps us to build positive attitudes linked with the particular platform. Whereas the latter often remains unrecognized until the habit is already established in one’s daily routine. Initial rewards subside fast, however, as these motivations are replaced by habitual use that is linked to a specific gain arising from a certain community engagement. These habits, once formed and established, are hard to overcome as demonstrated by an experiment with well-known, sugared beverages: 

“In an experiment demonstrating habit persistence despite conflicting attitudes, consumers continued to choose their habitual sugared beverages for a taste test even after reading a persuasive message that convinced them of the health risks of sugar”. 

It must be noted that social media use is not the same as drinking soda pop, smoking cigarettes or snorting cocaine. Social media use is also not a mindless, repetitive action. Rather it is a composition of different, highly individualized behaviors, attitudes and motivations that compound depending on the particular use case. For example a community organizer who uses Facebook Groups to bring together and coordinate high-school students across a county to play pickup ultimate frisbee will establish different habitual behaviors from someone using social media purely to connect online with a closed-circle of family and friends. The researchers found that active engagement on social media is linked to positive subjective experiences of well-being. Users who are more passive, scroll and read only reported lower levels of life satisfaction. Scrolling introduces an element of uncertainty for the user. Thus it is among the top rewards that don’t require active engagement. Unexpected posts tend to surprise users with sometimes highly emotional content such as misinformation or community nostalgia. Needless to state, controversial content tends to spread fast and far increasing the reward for engagement. Moreover it entrenches habitual use for users to come back to discover more emotional content.

To put this into perspective: social media habits form because the platform highlights signals that makes us feel good and keep us engaged. Preexisting emotional and social needs are captured by an easy process to use the platform. Notifications, likes, comments and shares increase participatory experiences that emulate real-world communities. Reciprocity between family, friends and others as well as elements of uncertainty are adjusted based on tailored content delivery through sophisticated algorithms. These lines of code ensure that once a user establishes a footprint on the platform, enough incentives are created to encourage and facilitate repeat use. Therefore further ingraining the platform in our daily lives, daily-use habits.

Maybe We Should Take A Break

In my thought provoking headline I challenge the notion that it is impossible to reduce or quit social media altogether. Note I wouldn’t want anybody to reduce or quit social media if it adds value to your life. Facebook is invaluable with regard to connecting with family and friends. YouTube or TikTok offer some of my favorite pastimes. And Twitter has become the newsstand of the 21st century. Nevertheless I believe this research paper is an important contribution to raise awareness of our daily habits, our time management and how we consume information. I would be remiss to not contemplate options to improve my social media diet. In psychology research the terminology for quitting a habit is coined discontinuance intention. Forming an intent to cease social media is a decision process at times overshadowed by feelings of regret, lack of alternative means to communicate across our social graph and general, societal inertia (take these Google search queries pictured below as an indicator for the impact of societal inertia). If you find yourself wanting to change your social media diet then be on the lookout for these factors: 

  • Familiarity Breeds Inaction: the longer a user is with a social media platform, the more likely feelings of familiarity and a sense of control prevent actions to reduce time spent on the platform
  • Habits Trump Intentions: everyday signals manifested in our phones, computers or environment trigger ideomotor responses to use social media despite social norms, resolutions etc. Remember the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is true for managing our social media habits
(Source: Interest over time on Google Trends for delete tiktok, delete facebook, delete twitter, delete instagram, delete snapchat – United States, Past 12 months)


Straight-forward self-control has been found to be an effective strategy to reduce the use of social media. Discipline to use social media with a specific intent and for a specific purpose equals freedom from habitual, time-consuming use. However, the researchers found that self-control is hard to maintain and a more effective strategy is changing the signals upon which we use social media. For example, leveraging silent or airplane mode on our phones, turning off push-notifications or unsubscribing from notification emails help to dig a moat between a healthy daily routine and mindless use of social media. Interestingly, the researchers found short term absences from social media, i.e. only a few days, is less effective than an entire week or longer breaks from social media. It will depend on an individual’s preferences, needs and benefits that must be carefully balanced against the inherent cost of social media use. Of course all of this is highly subjective. I recommend reading this well-written research paper as a start. It helps to formulate a balanced strategy for social media use and online habit management.

Threat Assessment: Chinese Technology Platforms

The American University Washington College of Law and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University created a working group to understand and assess the risks posed by Chinese technology companies in the United States. They propose a framework to better assess and evaluate these risks by focusing on the interconnectivity of threats posed by China to the US economy, national security and civil liberties.

tl;dr

The Trump administration took various steps to effectively ban TikTok, WeChat, and other Chinese-owned apps from operating in the United States, at least in their current forms. The primary justification for doing so was national security. Yet the presence of these apps and related internet platforms presents a range of risks not traditionally associated with national security, including data privacy, freedom of speech, and economic competitiveness, and potential responses raise multiple considerations. This report offers a framework for both assessing and responding to the challenges of Chinese-owned platforms operating in the United States.

Make sure to read the full report titled Chinese Technology Platforms Operating In The United States by Gary P. Corn, Jennifer Daskal, Jack Goldsmith, John C. Inglis, Paul Rosenzweig, Samm Sacks, Bruce Schneier, Alex Stamos, Vincent Stewart at https://www.hoover.org/research/chinese-technology-platforms-operating-united-states 

(Source: New America)

China has experienced consistent growth since opening its economy in the late 1970s. With its economy at about x14 today, this growth trajectory dwarfs the growth of the US economy, which increased at about x2 with the S&P 500 being its most rewarding driver at about x5 increase. Alongside economic power comes a thirst for global expansion far beyond the asian-pacific region. China’s foreign policy seeks to advance the Chinese one-party model of authoritarian capitalism that could pose a threat to human rights, democracy and the basic rule of law. US political leaders see these developments as a threat to their own US foreign policy of primacy but perhaps more important a threat to the western ideology deeply rooted in individual liberties. Needless to say that over the years every administration independent of political affiliation put the screws on China. A most recent example is the presidential executive order addressing the threat posed by social media video app TikTok. Given the authoritarian model of governance and the Chinese government’s sphere of control over Chinese companies their expansion into the US market raises concerns about access to critical data and data protection or cyber-enabled attacks on critical US infrastructure among a wide range of other threats to national security. For example:

Internet Governance: China is pursuing regulation to shift the internet from open to closed and decentralized to centralized control. The US government has failed to adequately engage international stakeholders in order to maintain an open internet but rather has authorized large data collection programs that emulate Chinese surveillance.

Privacy, Cybersecurity and National Security: The internet’s continued democratization encourages more social media and e-commerce platforms to integrate and connect features for users to enable multi-surface products. Mass data collection, weak product cybersecurity and the absence of broader data protection regulations can be exploited to collect data on domestic users, their behavior and their travel pattern abroad. It can be exploited to influence or control members of government agencies through targeted intelligence or espionage. Here the key consideration is aggregated data, which even in the absence of identifiable actors can be used to create viable intelligence. China has ramped up its offensive cyber operations beyond cyber-enabled trade or IP-theft and possesses the capabilities and cyber-weaponry to destabilize national security in the United States.

Necessity And Proportionality 

Considering mitigating the threat to national security by taking actions against Chinese owned- or controlled communications technology including tech products manufactured in China the working group suggests an individual case-based analysis. They attempt to address the challenge of accurately identifying the specific risk in an ever-changing digital environment with a framework of necessity and proportionality. Technology standards change at a breathtaking pace. Data processing reaches new levels of intimacy due to the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Thoroughly assessing, vetting and weighing a tolerance to specific risks are at the core of this framework in order to calibrate a chosen response to avoid potential collateral consequences.

The working group’s framework of necessity and proportionality reminded me of a classic lean six sigma structure with a strong focus on understanding the threat to national security. Naturally, as a first step they suggest accurately identifying the threat’s nature, credibility, imminence and the chances of the threat becoming a reality. I found this first step incredibly important because a failure to identify a threat will likely lead to false attribution and undermine every subsequent step. In the context of technology companies the obvious challenge is data collection, data integrity and detection systems to tell the difference. By that I imply a Chinese actor may deploy a cyber ruse in concert with the Chinese government to obfuscate their intentions. Following the principle of proportionality, step two is looking into the potential collateral consequence to the United States, its strategic partners and most importantly its citizens. Policymakers must be aware of the unintended path a policy decision may take once a powerful adversary like China starts its propaganda machine. Therefore this step requires policymakers to include thresholds for when a measure to mitigate a threat to national security outweighs the need to act. In particular inalienable rights such as the freedom of expression, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly must be upheld at all times as they are fundamental American values. To quote the immortal Molly IvinsMany a time freedom has been rolled back – and always for the same sorry reason: fear.” The third and final step concerns mitigation measures. In other words: what are we going to do about it? The working group landed on two critical factors: data and compliance. The former might be restricted, redirected or recoded to adhere to national security standards. The latter might be audited to not only identify vulnerabilities but further instill built-in cybersecurity and foster an amicable working-relationship. 

The Biden administration is faced with a daunting challenge to review and develop appropriate cyber policies that will address the growing threat from Chinese technology companies in a coherent manner that is consistent with American values. Only a broad policy response that is tailored to specific threats and focused on stronger cybersecurity and stronger data protection will yield equitable results. International alliances alongside increased collaboration to develop better privacy and cybersecurity measures will lead to success. However, the US must focus on their own strengths first, leverage their massive private sector to identify the specific product capabilities and therefore threats and attack vectors, before taking short-sighted, irreversible actions.

Just Try One More

And find out what you are made of. In her autobiography, American ultra-marathon open water swimmer and international swimming hall of famer, Penny Lee Dean describes overcoming life’s adversities and conquering the elements when you just try one more.

Water is an unforgiving element. The oceans are a hostile domain for man. Unlike land, where an ultra-marathon runner may rest during a grueling 100 mile race, the open waters have no mercy: stop swimming and you’ll die. This makes swimming an intriguing sport for many athletes. When it comes to long-distance swimming, however, there are few people as groundbreaking as Penny Lee Dean.

As a native of California, her childhood is marked by moving around several swimming clubs across the Bay Area. Through a series of setbacks within short-distance races Penny identified her talent and passion for endurance swimming. Those early days were filled with invaluable lessons to improve swimming style and to build up mental and physical strength. The longer the swims, the more she needed to acknowledge pain and then go beyond it.

“In marathon swimming, more than in any other sport, the mental attitude is at least 85 percent of the battle.”

What I found fascinating about Penny Lee Dean is her early dream of swimming the English Channel. This goal weaves like a red thread throughout this book. It guides and drives all her important decisions. And in order to make her dream become a reality she was fortunate enough to have an influential coach: Siga Rose. They quickly became a high-performing unit with Siga taking Penny to the next level in a dynamic, ever-changing ocean environment. Persistent training in the ocean with increasing distances elevated Penny into a position where she would attempt to swim 22 miles across open water from Los Angeles to Catalina crossing the Catalina Channel.

Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, is fraught with a deep struggle for love and compassion. Her account of her mother appears like a pendulum that would swing from love and care to not feeling supported and left vulnerable. While her mother was instrumental to find the best coaches and teammates available in the early 1970s Penny also saw the relationship of her mother and father break apart. The emotional struggle with it helped her to build up a mental fortitude that is fueled by an intensity to go further, faster.

Despite her personal adversities with her family, her internal battles against herself, Penny always found her way back to just try one more and see where it would take her. With this unshakable attitude she overcame unimaginable physical pain, emotional stress, jellyfish and the mental trepidation when faced with dynamic swells, waves, high winds and ever changing open water conditions. 

I found many invaluable lessons in Penny Lee Dean’s autobiography. Her description of building up mental toughness through setting affirmations, repeating affirmations and linking those affirmations to concrete goals are commonplace nowadays, but her story takes place in the 1970s when amateur and professional sports were far from scientifically researched as they are nowadays. I was also intrigued by her daily, unwavering discipline. It almost appears as if her daily schedule didn’t change for about two decades: rise by 6am, training in between 6:45am to 6pm, and in bed by 9pm. It speaks to the sacrifices athletes must take on in order to achieve greatness. But it also speaks to the level of passion and dedication she had for the sport. While I chose this book to learn more about overcoming the elements and testing myself in the open waters I sure don’t see myself swimming at ultra-marathon distances. However, the beauty of this autobiography is its simple message: just try one more when you feel you can’t go any further. It’s applicable to your studies, to your family or work struggles or when life hit you hard. Just Try One More is just that: don’t think, do it.     

An Economic Approach To Analyze Politics On YouTube

YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is said to be a gateway to introduce viewers to extremist content and a stepping stone towards online radicalization. However, two other factors are equally important when analyzing political ideologies on YouTube: the novel psychological effects of audio-visual content and the ability of monetization. This paper contributes to the field of political communications by offering an economic framework to explain behavioral patterns of right-wing radicalization. It attempts to answer how YouTube is used by right-wing creators and audiences and offers a way forward for future research.

tl;dr

YouTube is the most used social network in the United States and the only major platform that is more popular among right-leaning users. We propose the “Supply and Demand” framework for analyzing politics on YouTube, with an eye toward understanding dynamics among right-wing video producers and consumers. We discuss a number of novel technological affordances of YouTube as a platform and as a collection of videos, and how each might drive supply of or demand for extreme content. We then provide large-scale longitudinal descriptive information about the supply of and demand for conservative political content on YouTube. We demonstrate that viewership of far-right videos peaked in 2017.


Make sure to read the full paper titled Right-Wing YouTube: A Supply and Demand Perspective by Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1940161220964767

YouTube is unique in its combination of leveraging Google’s powerful content discovery algorithms, i.e. recommending content to keep attention levels on its platform and offering a type of content that is arguably the most immersive and versatile: video. The resulting product is highly effective to distribute a narrative, which caused journalists and academics to categorize YouTube as an important tool for online radicalization. In particular right-wing commentators make use of YouTube to spread their political ideologies ranging from conservative views to far-right extremism. However, the researchers draft a firm argument that the ability to create and manage committed audiences around a political ideology who mutually create and reinforce their extreme views is not only highly contagious to impact less committed audiences but pure fuel to ignite online radicalization.

Radio replaced the written word. Television replaced the spoken word. And online audio-visual content will replace the necessity to observe and understand. YouTube offers an unlimited library across all genres, all topics, all public figures ranging from user-generated content to six-figure Hollywood productions. Its 24/7 availability, immersive setup by incentivising comments and creating videos, allows YouTube to draw in audiences on much stronger psychological triggers than its mostly text-based competitors Facebook, Twitter or Reddit. Moreover, YouTube transcends national borders. It enables political commentary from abroad ranging from American expats to foreigners to exiled politicians or expelled opposition. In particular the controversial presidency of Donald Trump triggered political commentators in Europe and elsewhere to comment (and influence) the political landscape, its voters and domestic policies in the United States. This is important to acknowledge because YouTube has more users in the United States than any other social network including Facebook and Instagram.

Monetizing The Right

YouTube has been proven valuable to “Alternative Influence Networks”. In essence, potent political commentators and small productions that collaborate in direct opposition of mass media, both with regard to reporting ethics and political ideology. Albeit relatively unknown to the general populous, they draw consistent, committed audiences and tend to base their content around conservative and right-wing political commentary. There is some evidence in psychological research that conservatives tend to respond more to emotional content than liberals.

As such, the supply side on YouTube is fueled by the easy and efficient means to create political content. Production costs of a video are usually the equipment. The required time to shoot a video on a social issue is exactly as long as the video. In comparison drafting a text-based political commentary on the same issue can take up several days. YouTube’s recommendation system in conjunction with tailored targeting of certain audiences and social classes enable right-wing commentators to reach like-minded individuals and build massive audiences. The monetization methods include

  • Ad revenue from display, overlay, and video ads (not including product placement or sponsored by videos)
  • Channel memberships
  • Merchandise
  • Highlighted messages in Super Chat & Super Stickers
  • Partial revenue of YouTube Premium service

While YouTube has expanded its policy enforcement of extremist content, conservative and right-wing creators have adapted to the fewer monetization methods on YouTube by increasingly relying on crowdfunded donations, product placement or sale of products through affiliate marketing or through their own distribution network. Perhaps the most convincing factor for right-wing commentators to flock to YouTube is, however, the ability to build a large audience from scratch without the need of legitimacy or credentials.

The demand side on YouTube is more difficult to determine. Following the active audience theory users would have made a deliberate choice to click on right-wing content, to search for it, and to continue to engage with it over time. The researchers of this paper demonstrate that it isn’t just that easy. Many social and economic factors drive middle class democrats to adopt more conservative and extreme views. For example economic decline of blue-collar employment, a broken educational system in conjunction with increasing social isolation and lack of future prospects contribute to susceptibility to extremists content leading up to radicalization. The researchers rightfully argue it is difficult to determine the particular drivers that made an individual seek and watch right-wing content on YouTube. Those who do watch or listen to a right-wing political commentator tend to seek for affirmation and validation with their fringe ideologies.

“the novel and disturbing fact of people consuming white nationalist video media was not caused by the supply of this media radicalizing an otherwise moderate audience, but merely reflects the novel ease of producing all forms of video media, the presence of audience demand for white nationalist media, and the decreased search costs due to the efficiency and accuracy of the political ecosystem in matching supply and demand.”

While I believe this paper deserves much more attention and a reader should discover its research questions in the process of studying this paper, I find it helpful to provide the author’s research questions here, in conjunction with my takeaways, to make it easier for readers to prioritize this study: 

Research Question 1: What technological affordances make YouTube distinct from other social media platforms, and distinctly popular among the online right? 

Answer 1: YouTube is a media company; media on YouTube is videos; YouTube is powered by recommendations.

Research Question 2: How have the supply of and demand for right-wing videos on YouTube changed over time?

Answer 2.1: YouTube viewership of the extreme right has been in decline since mid-2017, well before YouTube changed its algorithm to demote far-right content in January 2019.

Answer 2.2: The bulk of the growth in terms of both video production and viewership over the past two years has come from the entry of mainstream conservatives into the YouTube marketplace.

This paper offers insights into the supply side of right-wing content and gives a rationale why people tend to watch right-wing content. It contributes to understanding how right-wing content is spreading across YouTube. An active comment section indicates higher engagement rates which are unique to right-wing audiences. These interactions facilitate a communal experience between creator and audience. Increased policy enforcement effectively disrupted this communal experience. Nevertheless, the researchers found evidence that those who return to create or watch right-wing content are likely to engage intensely with the content as well. Future research may investigate the actual power of the recommendation algorithm on YouTube. While this paper focused on right-wing content, the opposing political spectrum including the extreme left are increasingly utilizing YouTube to proliferate their political commentary. Personally I am curious to better understand the influence of foreign audiences on domestic issues and how YouTube is diluting the local populous with foreign activist voices.