If you’re like me, you have a friend that takes up more time than they deserve. They drag you down with them, and distract you from your goals. You know you need to get them out of your life to move forward, but you can’t let them go. Even when you try to move away, them come back calling you only to say “Hi,” and then want you to update on their status.
I’m writing today to help convince you to get rid of that friend, because they’re not your friend at all: it’s Facebook. I’m going to tell you how Facebook uses dark patterns to keep you coming back for more, even though you’re not getting any value from it. When I recognized just how much I was being sent back to the app on false pretenses, I deleted it from my phone quickly. If you start to recognize these patterns, it might convince you to do the same.
Dark patterns are design patterns that trick users into doing something not in their own best interest. Some dark patterns are easy to recognize, like adding fees on the final page of a checkout process. Others, such as the tactics Facebook employs, are less obvious, but they all rely on our psychological weaknesses. Facebook abuses our dopamine response, the “anticipation of pleasure,” by giving us notifications that promise to fulfill us when we read them. Even if the content of the notifications doesn’t actually bring any of the anticipated pleasure, that doesn’t stop the anticipation center of our brain from being kicked into high gear and tricking us every time.
Since Facebook relies on advertising for nearly all of its revenue, the more time one spends in the app, the better for Facebook. Remember when you used to be happy to get an email, but now are fatigued by it because most of what comes through is garbage? Facebook notifications used to mean someone was interacting with you. Not so any more, because now Facebook leans heavily push notifications, even when nothing has actually happened, just to drag you back into the app and increase the numbers that drive its revenue.
You got a new message! Or did you? Facebook will put a +1 badge on your messages box when someone accepts a friend request, and when you open up the message, it says “Start a conversation with New Friend.” This is deliberately misleading. How often do you want to immediately start chatting with someone because you became a friend with them on Facebook? It may not seem sinister, but it’s a technique to get you locked-in to Messenger. Just as most people don’t change their browser’s default search engine, most people stick with a single communication medium for each individual friend. If Messenger becomes your “default” for communication with someone because of this tactic, the fake message notification has done its job, even if it only works a small fraction of the time.
Notifications for notification’s sake
John Doe posted a message on Friday: “I discovered the greatest book on birdwatching…” (2 minutes ago). I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw it, then it happened again and again. A post in a group from days ago would show up in notifications as having just happened. This is a fabricated notification for the sole purpose of brining me back to the app. Someone, somewhere in Facebook has figured out that a certain number of notifications is ideal for increasing some ads-seen or time-in-app number. Let’s say that number is 10 notifications daily. That means that if it looks like you’re not going to hit your quota of 10 “real” notifications (someone liking your post, posting on your wall, etc), then there’s some algorithm that will dig until it finds something to notify you about. It doesn’t matter if nobody interacted with you directly, or if nothing actually happened. You’ve gone too long without a notification, so you’re getting a notification for notification’s sake. Or more precisely, for Facebook’s sake (and bottom line).
There might have been a time in your life when Facebook was providing value to you, and you were using it in moderation. Sure, there were time when you’d spend just a little too much time looking through friends’ albums, but overall it was a nice thing to have in your life. The time has come to unfriend Facebook, which has abused the relationship it built with you, stealing your time and attention to keep its profits growing larger.
I haven’t deleted my Facebook account, it hasn’t lost all value for me, but I have taken the notification overload out of my life by uninstalling the app. My time of letting the dark patterns employed by Facebook steal my time is over. The fake notifications were not satisfying or useful, and so now they’re gone. I’m using the site on my own terms, and invite you to do the same.