It’s All About The Social Media Addictive Business Model

As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, the big social media platforms prioritise user engagement above all else. This is because social media is an attention economy. The standard business model for all social media relies on them getting users to spend as much time as possible on their platforms...

The Attention Economy

As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, the big social media platforms prioritise user engagement above all else. This is because social media is an attention economy. The standard business model for all social media relies on them getting users to spend as much time as possible on their platforms.

What is not so well known is that social media platforms are designed to be addictive. This process largely takes place by stealth and is something the big platforms like Facebook are very reluctant to admit or even talk about. The reason they want people to spend as much time as possible on their platforms is because user time directly translates into money – vast amounts of it.


Advertising on social media is HUGE business. According to 92% of social marketers are using Facebook and according to Statista, in 2020, Facebook’s advertising revenue worldwide was close to USD 84.2 billion and it grows larger and larger every year. If you’ve ever wondered why social media platforms are free, this is the reason. You the user, are the product – and you’re very valuable.

Algorithms, engagement, and addiction

So how do the social media platforms get people engaged, keep them engaged – and in many cases even addicted? Etymologically at least, to be addicted means to be a slave. Addiction is an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behaviour even though it’s causing psychological and physical harm. The term addiction not only refers to dependence on substances such as heroin or cocaine but can also involve an inability to stop taking part in activities such as gambling, eating, sex, a preoccupation with social media or even working.

I’ve written a blog on this subject but in brief, the entire social media success story is built on the ability of their algorithms to predict what users will want to see and for the network to serve them up more of what they like. The problem for wider society is that humans are drawn to extremes. From an evolutionary perspective, we are hardwired to seek out threats and opportunities and so the algorithms are programmed to show us more of these. When an algorithm determines that showing you something negative is more likely to make you remain on the platform than showing you something neutral or positive, then the next material served up is likely to be darker.

Algorithms are designed to adapt

Algorithms are adaptive and use Machine Learning which is a kind of Artificial Intelligence designed to improve the algorithms as they receive more data. These data tools constantly work out small improvements in reaction to our behaviour. Have you ever wondered how long it takes a platform to calculate which advertisement to show you next? The answer is milliseconds, during which tens of thousands of comparisons will be made with what other humans did in similar situations. Online, these calculations occur millions of times an hour, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Anger and human emotion

I wrote a blog on this subject with the title: Why are we so angry online? The short answer is because of the so-called online disinhibition effect and my blog explains that there are six distinct reasons why we behave in a less inhibited way when online. One of the reasons people enjoy social media so much is because of the bad behaviour of other people in this environment, much of which provokes unfavourable judgement and intense feelings of anger.

What kind of bad behaviour? Misogyny, racism, homophobia, insults, terrorism, incitements to violence against women, bullying, death threats, the trolling of grieving families, hate campaigns, pile-on’s, rudeness, vitriol, and aggression. These behaviours are now commonplace on social media, in chat rooms and on message boards. If I mention the state of online discourse to anyone, the usual reaction is one of concern, then resignation. But the social media platforms are thriving, as people love controversy and it keeps them engaged.


The Fear Of Missing Out is becoming an increasingly familiar phenomenon because of social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. It refers to a feeling or perception that others are having more fun, living better lives, or experiencing better things than you are. It involves a deep sense of envy and affects self-esteem.

Sufferers of FOMO are compelled to constantly check their social media feeds to make sure they aren’t missing out, as well as to check if they’ve received any likes or dislikes of their posts. It’s not just the sense there could be better things you could be doing with your time, but the feeling you’re missing out on something important that other people are enjoying right now. It always involves a feeling of powerlessness and a suspicion that the something you must be missing out on is really important.

Social media provides a situation in which you compare your normal life to the edited highlights of other peoples’ lives, thus skewing your sense of what is normal. FOMO sufferers should remember that social media posts are carefully edited and photoshopped versions of real life that often bear little resemblance to the appearance being portrayed on the site. Someone posting a photo of themselves is always going to choose the picture that presents them in the best light.

Several studies have found that FOMO can be experienced by people of all ages. One study in the Psychiatry Research journal found that the fear of missing out was linked to a greater smartphone and social media usage – and that this link was not associated with age or gender.

How social media apps hook in their users

It’s as if they’re taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back“, said former Mozilla and Jawbone employee Aza Raskin. “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like, literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting” he added.

In 2006 Mr Raskin, a leading technology engineer himself, designed infinite scroll, one of the features of many apps that is now seen as highly habit forming. At the time, he was working for Humanized – a computer user-interface consultancy.

Here’s a very revealing 2-minute clip where Aza Raskin is being interviewed by the BBC on some of the techniques he and his colleagues employ to keep users engaged on social media.

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