How did Facebook become a business worth $1 trillion at one point last year? Not just by fulfilling its mission of “connecting people,” but by keeping them hooked on the site, sometimes for hours on end.
Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Inc., Alphabet, Inc.’s YouTube, and Twitter, Inc. have spent years perfecting the art of building habit-forming products, whether through the social affirmation of “likes,” the allure of a never-ending newsfeed, or the way YouTube hits your dopamine receptors each time it recommends a new video.
Guillaume Chaslot, an engineer who left Google in 2013 after helping to design YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, remembers being told to program it to encourage larger amounts of time spent by people on the site. “When you optimize for time spent, then you optimize for addiction,” he says. “At the time, I did not even realize that.”
But now, several years into a broad backlash against Big Tech platforms over their safety, more consumer internet services seem to be disregarding the pressure to be “sticky,” in Silicon Valley parlance, or to reward attention-seeking behavior. It’s a promising trend.
Some of these services are actually taking off with consumers.
BeReal is a social app developed in France where all users are told to post a photo of themselves and their surroundings at one randomly appointed time each day. Instead of perfectly angled selfies on the beach, you get double chins, laptop keyboards, and crowds of bus commuters — in other words, the mundane moments of everyday lives. As of May 2022, BeReal had been downloaded more than 10 million times and is growing steadily among teens and college students in the US, UK and France, according to app analytics firm data.ai.
There are no beautifying filters, and BeReal discourages staged photos. “It isn’t showing fake lives like some Instagram influencers present,” says Alice, a 15-year-old in London who started using BeReal in April after a friend recommended it.
Perhaps more importantly, BeReal isn’t as addictive as Instagram. You only really need to look at the app once a day, when a flood of new photos gets added. I’ve been using BeReal for several months and find it hard to ignore the app’s two-minute alerts for everyone to post a photo, but I’m not hooked on BeReal in the same way I’m compelled to look at Twitter multiple times throughout the day.
The once-a-day routine is also what has driven tens of millions of people to play Wordle, the hit puzzle game now owned by New York Times Co. that updates itself daily, and which encourages players to share yellow-and-green grid emojis of their results.
Instead of building a constant itch to be checked 24/7, both BeReal and Wordle create anticipation. Instead of showcasing content, the apps encourage a unique, fleeting daily practice that connects users with others.
Both web services could be fads, of course. Remember the apps Dispo, YikYak, and Peach? If not, that’s because social media and internet platforms are a fickle business, filled with flameouts that couldn’t attain long-term appeal with consumers.
But Wordle and BeReal’s current success also comes alongside a broader cultural change: a hardening awareness among consumers, and among teens and 20-somethings in particular, of the psychological risks of spending a lot of time on social media. That knowledge has compelled Gen Z to pioneer finsta accounts on Instagram to post more private and authentic photos for their close friends, or to start trends like #filterdrop.
Ironically, the biggest company ditching the dopamine model may be Facebook itself.
If you find that hard to believe, consider that the metaverse, which Meta Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is pivoting his entire company toward, doesn’t seem to have much addictive potential. For one, entering virtual reality is cumbersome. After strapping a headset like the Oculus Quest 2 to your face, you wait several minutes while a game like Beat Saber loads on the headset which, speaking from my own experience of regularly using a Quest 2, becomes noticeably heavy and uncomfortable after about an hour.
VR headsets are destined to get lighter and more comfortable. But they will still require far more intention than glancing at a phone and casually thumbing a screen. Various studies have shown the average American checks their phone between 50 and 100 times each day. That probably won’t be the case with the metaverse, even when VR devices become sleeker.
That is also because visiting VR requires setting time aside to immerse yourself in a virtual space with the same kind of intent you would have to sit down and watch TV in the evening. It’s a different story with so-called augmented reality, where information is overlaid onto your view of the real world, and which seems more likely to become addictive with its much more seamless transition between real and digital spaces.
“Using the metaverse takes time — being able to log on, and just the amount of focus you have to spend,” Wagner James Au, author of The Making of Second Life, told me in February. “It takes a lot of time and attention.” You can’t, for instance, watch a movie and simultaneously check into the metaverse in the same way you might check your Facebook newsfeed during dull moments of dialogue.
It’s true that 20 years ago the internet’s early skeptics argued that getting online was too complicated to plug into our daily lives. But I still don’t buy Facebook’s vision that people will spend large chunks of their day working, socializing, and playing in the metaverse, because the transition from an all-encompassing virtual reality to our physical reality is clunky.
The metaverse being built by Facebook has serious problems that need ironing out. There have been incidents of harassment, creepy behavior, and a worrying number of children visitors. And Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has warned that the metaverse will be habit-forming in the future. But I expect it to be about as addictive as computer games, which have been shown to have narrower incidents of addiction disorder, potentially affecting 0.3% to 1% of the population of the US, UK, Canada, and Germany, according to one 2016 study.
In fact, not only are people not finding themselves lured back to the metaverse over and over as they have with Facebook, metaverse evangelists aren’t, either. “Very few of them actually use the metaverse with the degree of frequency that they say we’re all going to be using it,” Au noted.
The moral paradox of Facebook is that its addictive quality has led to both widespread harm and astonishing financial success. Meta earned $39.4 billion in profit last year, on sales of $117 billion. Its founder is currently the world’s 15th richest person. But its future money-making potential with the metaverse is an open question when putting on a VR headset doesn’t hit the same dopamine reward pathways in our brains as glancing at a smartphone dozens of time each day.
How will Meta attain the same level of ad revenue from the metaverse if people aren’t visiting it anywhere near as frequently as Facebook or Instagram? That question may be fueling broader skepticism about the metaverse’s future business potential: Meta’s shares have sunk 43% since the start of the year, a sharper decline than Alphabet (down 22%) and Amazon, Inc. (down 23%) in the latest tech market rout.
The metaverse will continue to cost Zuckerberg’s company billions of dollars, but when it comes to creating digital junkies out of us all, Meta and other new apps like BeReal seem to be going in a healthier direction.