We’re Primed to Be Addicted to Social Media

Networks are the internet’s black holes, and trolls are its dark energy

The Savage State, part I of Thomas Cole’s series: The Course of Empire.





noun: normie; plural noun: normies

  1. An ordinary or conventional person, as distinguished from someone who is a member of a particular group or subculture.

Two decades ago, astronomers first observed that the universe was not just expanding, but expanding and accelerating. This contradicted their prediction: that the gravitational pull of all of the mass in the universe would slow and eventually cease its expansion. This would be followed by a so-called “Big Crunch,” where the inescapable pull of gravity would cause the universe to collapse back in on itself. If the universe’s expansion was not decelerating, astronomers concluded, there must be a force counteracting gravity. Astrophysicists have since named that force “dark energy.”

Dark energy is perhaps best understood as the antidote to a black hole. Whereas the massive gravitational pull of a black hole drags everything towards it, dark energy is responsible for everything in the universe gradually moving farther away from everything else. Further, since we know the universe is not just expanding, but expanding at an accelerating rate, we can safely assume dark energy is either stronger or more prevalent than physical matter (and thus, gravity). The latter turns out to be true: physical matter makes up roughly 5% of all matter in the universe, while dark energy makes up a whopping 68%.

This discovery was made in 1998. One year later, a majority of electronics companies agreed to make WiFi the worldwide standard for wireless internet. That year, the world took a massive step towards worldwide connectivity.

There is no causation here, just correlation. Still, we can draw a parallel between our monumental discovery of the universe’s accelerating expansion and mass polarization caused by the internet (now spilling over into the real world). To understand why the internet is responsible for this polarization, and the parallel between the cosmic and virtual world, it’s necessary to consider three things:

  1. Why approval has more of an effect on decision-making than almost any other factor
  2. How and why the variable reward schedule works, specifically in regard to social networks
  3. What makes brands successful

Let’s take each in turn.

Approval’s Effect on Decision-Making

Humans evolved in small groups, typically of no more than 150 people. Any more than that and we would’ve been unable to maintain familiar, stable relationships with people, and the bonds that held the community together would’ve broken down. In these groups, it was vital to have a method of identifying and expelling someone toxic to the rest of the group. Thus, out of these early groups emerged gossip, or conversation between members of the group about another member behind their back, as a mechanism to do so with as little friction as possible.

Gossip enabled groups to formulate common knowledge about individuals within them. It wasn’t just that everyone knew an individual needed to be expelled, but everyone knew that everyone else knew it. Thus, everyone could be counted on to act when the time came for expulsion. Since expulsion from the group meant almost certain death, it follows that those of us still around today are evolutionarily programmed to fit in with the crowd. Those who didn’t are dead and didn’t procreate, so there aren’t any of them left.

It follows that the possibility of external approval — or disapproval — has a profound effect on our decisions. The level of disapproval enabled by the internet feels as dramatic to us as death at the hands of the crowd. On the other hand, the pull of the possibility of approval is powerful enough to outweigh our fear of disapproval. In fact, the infinitesimally slim probability of approval at a global scale explains why social networks are so widely used: we’re addicted to variable rewards.

Why Social Networks Are Addictive: The Variable Reward Schedule

The variable reward schedule is a system designed to unpredictably distribute rewards in response to an action. In a famous experiment led by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, there were two groups of mice. The first group received the same size treat each time they pressed the lever. The second group would press a lever and randomly receive either a large treat, a small treat, or nothing at all. While the mice in the control group showed no compulsive need to press the lever, the mice in the second group pressed it with a reckless fervor. Their lever was that of a slot machine: compulsively addictive because it was designed as a variable reward distributing mechanism.

Systems like this are addictive because they appeal to an evolutionary strength: pattern recognition. Consider the human brain as an algorithm digesting inputs and expelling outputs. (If “________,” then “________.”) A humanoid species running on an algorithm with the logic “if [random noise], then [run]” would have had a better chance of survival than a species whose logic was “if [random noise], then [who knows?].” It follows that humans are evolutionarily primed to seek patterns to the point of creating them where they do not exist; in fact, the very existence of our species in the current era is a result of having done so.

Social networks have succeeded because they variably distribute the most evolutionarily compelling reward possible: approval.

Casinos have understood this for generations, and many examples of addictive, deliberately unpredictable systems are found within their hazy confines: craps tables, slot machines, roulette. It is easy to see the parallel between these games and social media; in fact, the only real difference between social media and slot machines is that the former distributes approval, while the latter distributes money, or fiat approval.

Why Brands Succeed

Put simply, brands succeed because they make people believe they are being perceived in the way they want to be perceived. As long as there are people who want to believe they are being perceived a certain way, brands will exist to help.

The Pastoral State, part II of Thomas Cole’s series: The Course of Empire.

The nature of a successful brand is twofold. First, the brand advertises to create a scaffolding of common knowledge around its product — for instance, the Pepsi Generation made consumers believe they’d be perceived as rebellious if they drank Pepsi. Second, people who want to be perceived as rebellious buy Pepsi, and perceive themselves as rebellious even as others might not notice. It doesn’t matter if people actually perceive you the way you want to be perceived. It matters that you believe you’re being perceived that way.

In the approval economy, our behaviors have never been more subject to the external approval we believe either will or won’t accompany them. Brands should make sure that people believe others will approve of them if they use their products.

The Consummation of Empire, part III of Thomas Cole’s series: The Course of Empire.

What is the result of this?

We now know three things:

  1. The need for approval is, evolutionarily, one of the most powerful forces that influences human behavior.
  2. Varying the distribution of anything based on the same action will drive a pattern-obsessed species insane as it tries to make sense of something that, by nature, it cannot.
  3. Successful brands make consumers believe they are being perceived how they want to be perceived (i.e. feeling approved of in whatever sense).

It follows that the most successful “brands” of this era, social networks, have succeeded because they variably distribute the most evolutionarily compelling reward possible: approval.

Further, social networks are infinitely scalable, meaning they aren’t subject to the same growth constraints as a brand that sells physical products. This enables brands like Facebook to distribute a level of approval unimaginable in a scarcity-based, pre-internet world. It’s also why networks like Facebook have attracted billions of users, like moths to a lamp.

The objective brilliance of this model cannot be overstated. Brands have spent billions of dollars to craft messaging that makes it clear to consumers that they will receive approval if they purchase their products. Social media took a different approach: turn people into creators, facilitate the distribution of the content they create (which, crucially, is often inextricably linked to their perception of themselves), and let the community variably distribute their approval to those who created the content. This works because it takes something we are evolutionarily programmed to seek, distributes it via a mechanism that we are evolutionarily programmed to use, and does it all at a previously unimaginable scale.

Social media has manufactured literal black holes throughout the internet. Like that of a black hole, the gravitational pull of the infinitely small probability that everyone on the internet might approve of your content — and thus, of you — is so strong that it may as well be inescapable. This pull attracted the masses at a breakneck pace, rendering the internet no longer the intimate, libertarian paradise it once was. Unsurprisingly, early adopters evolved behaviors — trolling, mainly — to combat the gravitational pull of the systems built on top of the internet. If social networks are black holes, the behavior of early adopters is dark energy: the push combatting the pull.

Weev — an infamous blogger and early internet adopter known for bearing Swastikas and vocally supporting Nazis — bluntly described this behavior in an interview (emphasis added):

Trolling is basically internet eugenics. I want everyone off the internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed… We are headed for a Malthusian crisis… The question we have to answer is: How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?”

We all have a sense that “the masses” — an amorphous group of people we don’t identify with — have overrun the internet. We feel this way because our minds aren’t built to handle the massiveness of reality, and these networks have the capability to expose us to more of it than anything ever has.

The internet takes everyone — their interests, friends, lives, insecurities — and exposes them to everyone else, eroding our certainty about ideas both frivolous and dire. Adding fuel to the fire is the ease with which the internet evacuates us from the anomie that this exposure invokes through echo chambers. Each one comes with an implied manual whose prime directive is strict adherence to ideology, even as that ideology exists along an infinitely broad spectrum of other ideologies. Below the prime directive is a small but vital footnote on an important 21st century truth: civil engagement with anyone outside of your own pod is heresy. And finally, under the footnote sits a picture of a ticket to the museum in which civility now sits, not on display, but rather in a box; a relic collecting dust, forgotten.

Destruction, part IV of Thomas Cole’s series: The Course of Empire. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty

If this makes you think we should be doing better, it shouldn’t. Consider the thought experiment of encountering an alien species that spent its entire existence in groups of 150 people, and giving it a mechanism that exposes everyone to seven billion. Seems we’d be shocked if they didn’t fuck it up.¹

So, what do we do?

There are a lot of ideas, some that involve keeping everyone on the internet and others that propose the opposite. Weev and his contemporaries’ trolling-based “solution” blends the two by creating communities governed by an ever-accelerating set of norms. This works because anyone unwilling or unable to keep up with the pace gets trolled, then either leaves the community or gets expelled.

There is a certain petulance to this behavior, akin to that of children in a treehouse who refuse to drop the ladder for a newcomer. But there’s also an odd logic to it, reminiscent as it is of planning a party weeks in advance, wanting only your close friends there, and spending the days leading up to it walking on eggshells around the people you don’t. On the internet, however, instead of throwing a party once, you’re throwing one at every moment, and instead of one or two people you’d like to avoid, there are seven billion.

Stands to reason shit might get ugly.

Truthfully, there was never any other possible outcome than the ugliness we’re seeing now: blowback from early adopters in the face of the massification of the internet. There are two good reasons why. The first is how the usage of the internet scaled. The second is what, given this potential scale (and the network effects it would enable), entrepreneurs would eventually use the internet to do. The two are linked, so I’ll outline them together.

Infinite Scale + Network Effects + Capitalism = $$$$

The internet does not have “shareholders,” per se. Further, each additional person who joins the network actually adds value to everyone else in it. Early adopters realized this, and thus, for a while, had the internet to themselves. After a while, though, entrepreneurs recognized the opportunity to profit from network effects enabled by the internet, and designed systems (this time, with shareholders) to attract the masses, or “normies,” to them. As people joined, what was once a paradise in the eyes of the early adopters was soiled by the normalcy of the masses. Thus, to escape, those early adopters created communities — sometimes on these platforms, but often elsewhere — that the masses had no way of entering unless they could keep up with the intentional complexity of norms and context required to engage with those already initiated. Writer David Auerbach summed these behaviors up well, describing them as: “…the constant hazing of n00bs through argot and complex conventions and elite technical knowledge [that] polices the boundaries of the subculture to inoculate it from massification.”

These tactics have largely worked. For the time being, weev and his contemporaries remain just ahead of the rest, constantly evolving their strategy to stay ahead of what, ironically, their very paradise — the internet — has enabled: the construction of systems that attract everyone onto the internet. Weev and his contemporaries revered the early internet for its intimacy, but in a capitalist society, it was inevitable that the internet would lose it. In the eyes of these early adopters, the internet in its current state is a Madisonian (or Mill-ian, or Tocqueville-ian) nightmare; it is a network of everyone, governed by the masses.

It was inevitable that this network would lead to hyper-polarization, as no community of seven billion individuals, all evolutionarily optimized for a society literally fifty million times smaller than that in which we live now, could possibly exist without at least a few hiccups. Trolling is an emergent characteristic of not only a once intimate network having scaled, but also how it scaled. It is a way for early adopters to escape the mass mediocrity that followed them.

Here’s the kicker, though: Neither trolling — nor the hyper-polarized, ideologically spectrum-less communities it preserves — are sustainable solutions. They are, however, effective ones, and that should tell us everything we need to know about the danger of the internet. Hopefully, it can also shed at least a beam of light, however weak, into the shadows of an abyss that has felt especially dark as of late, illuminating what it would’ve been nice to have known a decade ago, but I think we’d all still settle for knowing now: what we can do to fix this, and where we go from here.

Over 100 years ago, one of the most famous astronomers of all time, Edwin Hubble, discovered a cosmological constant indicating the universe was expanding. Seventy-six years later, astronomers elaborated on this discovery. They found that the universe was not just expanding, but that the expansion was accelerating. A unique and poorly understood force — dark energy — was to blame.

This discovery illustrates exactly what is occurring on the internet today. On one end, there is gravity: the pull of social networks that variably distribute approval to a species that evolved unable to resist it. On the other, there is dark energy: behaviors — like trolling — performed by early adopters to inoculate themselves from what they see as the disease of mass mediocrity. Like the constant battle waged by gravity and dark energy to determine the direction of the universe’s expansion, these forces — trolling’s push and approval’s pull — are in direct contradiction, clear as it is that the success of one indicates the failure of the other.

Desolation, part V of Thomas Cole’s series: The Course of Empire.

Astronomers have used Hubble’s theories to make one very clear determination: dark energy is winning. And as it does, the universe’s expansion will continue to accelerate, dragging celestial bodies that were once in close proximity farther and farther from one another, faster and faster. One day we might look into the night sky and see, instead of the stars and planets that once dotted it, darkness. If the same thing happens on the internet, if the behaviors that have emerged from its darkest corners offset the gravitational pull of social networks to the same degree that dark energy has offset gravity, our future — like our sky, eventually — may be very dark indeed.²


¹ On that vector, we’ve done a pretty good job. Again, this is not to say immense good has not come from the internet, just that it is hard to imagine a situation in which this scenario would play out without any major shockwaves.

² Not to say that the alternative — an internet in which social networks pulled everyone into black holes of virtual, global warfare — would be preferable. But it is true that the aforementioned reality is what’s being avoided by an internet whose expansion — which includes the ideas, the contents, the communities, the commonality of a massively complex and storied species — goes the same direction as that of the universe. This hasn’t been proven to have been inevitable in the universe, but it was always inevitable on the internet.

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