“Persuasion” sounds like an insidious thing; a perfect persuasion technique could convince you to do anything, regardless of whether you want to do it. And yet, by writing this post, there is some level of persuasion happening; anyone who has opted for a personal trainer has chosen to be persuaded; and social media thrives on a strange type of persuasion.
Advert-funded websites measure their own success by the number of hours spent on that site; the number of visits is obviously important, but the length of time spent there, in total, is the real metric. This is why Netflix and YouTube have a autoplay function (and I think Netflix curates its ‘next’ videos much better). That’s why Facebook will email you if you’re not there for a while, and what the little notification number of Facebook and Twitter doesn’t render immediately (to mimic the experience of gambling).
Clickbait and fake news also hijack parts of your mind to persuade you visit and then remain on their pages. Sensationalism and outrage convince you, in the present, to spend your time reading those pages, sometimes regardless of the fact that you outwardly have no interest or are even aware that you don’t care about the topic.
Internet advertising has gamed the online experience: huge teams of people work on concentrating your attention on their pages, for their benefit. Take a moment to consider your direct empirical research: if I showed you a breakdown of the number of hours you were on social media or less-than-reputable news sources, or playing a game on your phone, would you react with pride that you had spent your day well, or regret that this seems to be a poor way to have spent your time? You may even get dragged into a ridiculous argument in the comment sections of WordPress blogs, because outrage can control your decision making like this.
It may be that I am simply arguing for the sake of arguing: if the amount of time you spend on a website doesn’t demonstrate your interest in that website, what metric can anyone use? This seems like a fair question, but here’s the problem: your attention is being subverted; when your intellectual guard is down, you are sucked into spirals of wasting your attention on outrage articles and celebrities’ now and then.
It’s not just celebrities either: look at how these ugly babies changed over time! Some of these are unbelievable.
Knowing this ― that the online world is gamed to encourage us to waste our time for the website owners’ ends, and this is manufactured by skilled teams of psychologists and an entire discipline borne of Edward Bernays; that the online world we value isn’t configured to suit our interests ― may make you think there is something unethical about persuasion. Of course, we can live our lives constantly applying effort to resist temptation and avoid what we would otherwise be sucked into, but that isn’t the use for our energies we want. We don’t want to have to avoid what causes us regret, because that energy would be best spent on discovering or chasing what makes us happy.
There is a problem here, though. My moral compass may be thrown off by the fact that ‘persuasion’ is the word we have, and there are no further words for further nuance. There is, after all, a distinction between a person whose goals are aligned with ours and a person who twiddles their moustache while plotting how to use you as a means for their ends. And, in the moment, we are suckers for the mustachioed villain. But we regret it on reflection. But, persuasion for the persuaders’ benefit and persuasion for the persuadee’s benefit are clearly morally different: personal trainers use psychology to encourage us to reach for the thing we said we value. But, because we don’t have the language to distinguish these two genres of persuasion, we (or, I, at least) find it more difficult to notice moral differences in conversation.
The internet has been shaped to look like an addictive substance. To compete in that, even reputable news sources are using clickbait headlines. I, because I feel this idea may help you re-organise the project of your online life, have used a clickbait-y title and invented a little conflict in this post. Imagine the irony of apps designed to help you organise your time: if they’re not tuned to waste your time, they lose the competition for your attention. If a meditation apps wants to encourage you to focus your attention, to teach you to notice and master your own uses of attention, it must first abuse your uses of attention to get noticed at all.
This fight in the attention economy, to see customers as the means to an end, is creating symptoms we’d rather not have in our lives: checking our phones and various accounts more than 100 times a day, worrying about emails (businesses worked when people communicated by letter and, for some reason, people seem to hold themselves to a much higher standard of email response time than they would other people), anxiety, and people measuring their worth based on online responses (likes and replies and favourites etc)
It is impossible to regulate against this, because I want to be able to use services to persuade me to achieve the things I value: I want a personal training app that reminds me I haven’t been to the gym, because I may be sucked into an online argument right now, but I don’t value that as much as I do exercise: stop notifying me of replies. There are good and bad persuasion goals, as well as techniques. To envisage this, imagine a perfectly effective persuasion technique; whatever it wants you to do, it can persuade you (thought experiments are the staple of even armchair philosophy). Ignore whether such a technology can exist or whether it would ever be politically tolerated (but, as nukes are tolerated, I assume this technology would be as well). There is a difference between us being able to use it on ourselves to be persuaded to learn guitar and get out of bed on time and to bed at a reasonable hour, and a company being able to deploy it on others to turn them into customers.
What we want is an online ecosystem where we can evaluate our online and mobile time, highlight our own values, and then service providers are rewarded (with app store presence and priority notifications ― if that’s appropriate) for aligning with our values. We don’t have the option for full-scale market force and consumer power: the services we want from Facebook are tied up with addictive news stories and autoplaying videos. I don’t know that the ecosystems we use ― Google, Facebook and Apple, mostly ― can be convinced to go down this line in the way Android, iOS and the Facebook homepage work. But, as people like Tristan Harris ― a former ‘Design Ethicist’ ― have influence at Google and Instagram, there is a reason to believe this is changing.
These sorts of changes, where the goal and the related metric are updated to a deeper value, have happened before, for better or for worse. The ‘Organic’ movement in food is exactly this kind of change in values; people were no longer happy with the means necessary to race to the bottom on the shelf-price of vegetables, and so started valuing the means. This happens in certified renewably sourced woods, FairTrade and ‘locally sourced’ foods. There is a debate to be had about whether the metric and certification really achieves the values and the goals, but this step of monetising values is achievable.