Caught in the WWWeb: How the web became optimized for addiction

The first book that identified internet addiction was Caught in the Net, published in 1998 by a neuropsychologist named Kimberly S. Young and contains the findings of her 3-year study. That means she identified internet addiction as a problem in 1994/95. That’s 25 years ago.

As Dr. Young says, that was back when the internet cost $2.95 an hour. And some of her research subjects were spending 40-60 hours a week online. That’s $118-177 per week, $511-767 per month, and $6,136-9,205 per year. In 1995 dollars. In 2020, that’s $4.96 per hour, $198-298 per week, $860-1,290 per month, and $10,323-15,486 per year¹.

Can you imagine paying $10,000 a year for the internet? Even $6,000 a year in 2020 dollars is crazy! Dr. Kim said that internet addiction and the financial stress on some of the relationships of her subjects were even leading to divorce.

Technology has improved and things have gotten a lot faster and cheaper since 1995. The internet and the web have become more and more accessible. And internet addiction has gotten more and more prevalent. Where Dr. Young’s book was met with skepticism and internet addiction seen as an outlandish overdramatization that may have affected “other people,” now internet gaming addiction is part of the DSM-5 and I think we are all well aware of how addicted we are to our screens, regardless of what we use them for. It’s no big secret. It’s no longer a silent issue that only affects “other people.”

Types of Tech Addiction

While the DSM-5 recognizes internet gaming addiction, I don’t think that’s the only kind of internet addiction. In fact, I think the term “internet addiction” could even be a misnomer. Internet/technology addiction can come in many different forms:

  • Internet gaming addiction
  • Internet gambling addiction
  • Internet porn addiction2
  • Social media addiction
  • TV/Movie streaming addiction3
  • Web surfing addiction
  • Video game addiction
  • Online dating/Dating app addiction
  • Online shopping addiction
  • Etc.

Personally, my biggest problem is web surfing addiction. In my experience, I would define web surfing addiction as a type of technology addiction where you “go down the rabbit hole,” clicking on links and constantly searching for new things. This YouTube video sparks a question so you Google it and then you’re reading 2 or 3 (or 10) articles online about it and each article leads to the next thing and the next thing and the next. What starts off with a hairstyle tutorial leads to learning how to stop bath towels from shedding so much lint. On the one hand, I did learn not to bleach my 100% cotton towels because it degrades the fibers and causes the lint shedding but at the same time, I wasted so many hours going from hairstyle to towel fuzz.

The Net vs. The Web

Although the terms are used in the vernacular as though they are interchangeable, the ‘net and the web are not the same things. The ‘net (internet) is a networking infrastructure while the web is a collection of information that is accessed via the internet. The web is part of the internet but it’s not the whole internet.

“[The internet] is a way to allow different computers around the World to talk to one another. Whether it is downloading a pdf file from a website, or chatting to a friend over Skype – it is the Internet that connects the computers together. The Internet is not actually a single physical network – it’s just a set of rules (Internet Protocols) that allow different networks to communicate.

When you connect your computer to the Internet, it joins this network – and you can send or receive information from any other computer or server online.

The Web (or World Wide Web) is the system of web pages and sites that uses the Internet to pass the files across. It was developed in the late 1980’s by Tim Berners-Lee, and you need a Web Browser to access it. This could either be in a PC, a mobile phone or one of the new iPods.

The Web is just one of many services that use the Internet – other services include e-mail, internet telephony and peer-to-peer file transfers. In the not-too-distant future, most people will probably get all their TV programmes piped down the Internet as well. And, looking deeper into my Crystal Ball I see people being digitally transferred from location to location.

Since many of the services that use the Internet (such as e-mail) can now be accessed through websites, the confusion is likely to get worse.”4

Optimized for Addiction

I don’t think the internet is inherently evil. I like the internet; it’s a useful tool (or at least that’s how it should be). However, I do think social media, and probably most of the web is. The internet is what lets tools like Skype, Maps, Facetime, Zoom, calendar syncing, the clouds, Uber/Lyft work. Without the internet (and I guess the web too), we wouldn’t be able to work and learn virtually during this pandemic. These tools can be used via the app(lication)s on our phones or computers and sometimes also on the web. You can use Skype as an app on your computer or phone, or you can use Skype on the web via a web browser like Chrome or Firefox. Facetime, however, is only available via an app on Apple devices. Both Skype and Facetime use the internet but only Skype uses the web.

While my beef with social media is a topic for another time,5 the problem I have with the web is that, like social media, it is optimized for addiction. Social media and the web both have features that were designed and implemented intentionally for eyeball harvesting.

eyeball harvesting (v) : a term used to describe the way in which the benefactors of the attention economy, cheifly social media companies and websites, gain their financial and monetary benefits, by keeping “eyeballs on the screens and more eyeballs on the screens for longer6 [periods of time]”

The term eyeball harvesting is totally made up and it sounds like something out of a sci-fi horror film but I find it to be rather accurate albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way. You could replace the term eyeball with time and attention and it would mean the exact same thing. The features and mechanisms of eyeball harvesting on the web include links, infinite scroll, using algorithms to display personalized (aka targeted) content, and autoplaying the next video.

I’ve known about the dangers of social media for a while but it wasn’t until I read an article on Medium that made me realize that the same things apply to the web in general. According to Michael Simmons, the author of the article7,

“the Internet was designed to be a junk learning machine… Even sites that we consider innately educational, and which I deeply appreciate — like Amazon, TED Audible, and podcasts — are algorithmically structured to keep us focused on what’s new and popular rather than what will help us learn the most… The Internet filters content based on newness, popularity, and past interests. Rather than facilitating reflection and action, it facilitates more content consumption. Therefore, the Internet is fundamentally not designed for learning.”

Even sites we think are educational are structured to keep us focused on what’s new and popular. “Newest Talks” and “Trending” are featured first on TED.com Credit: Michael Simmons

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Business Model

The mechanisms of the attention economy are necessitated by a business model that is only sustained through the harvesting of eyeballs. The reason the businesses behind the websites and social media platforms want your eyeballs is to make money. They make money by keeping “eyeballs on the screens for longer and more eyeballs on the screen.”

Facebook and the like (Snapchat, Twitter, etc.) make money primarily through ads. Businesses pay Facebook to post ads on their websites and apps. In order for Facebook to get these businesses to pay for ad space on Facebook, it is in Facebook’s best interest to show these businesses that it has a) many users on the site/app and b) the users on the site stay on the site for a long time. An increase of users and an increase in the amount of time they stay on the site means an increased chance of the users clicking on the ads and the businesses are paying for clicks.

This applies to any website that runs ads. Yes, even mine. I have a free WordPress account which lets me publish this blog for free. I don’t profit from the ads on my site aside from the benefit that I get in the form of a free website to use and post on. Could I swing the annual fee to get rid of ads and have a custom domain name? Yes, but other things are taking priority in my life. I’ve considered setting up a Patreon or something but I don’t think I have enough readers who would really be interested. But if you are, leave me a comment on this post.

When eyeball harvesting is how companies make their money, they use all sorts of tactics to do it. Sites become optimized for addiction because that is how they are optimized for profit.

I guess I can’t knock the hustle. Everyone has a right to try and make money and companies like Facebook have created thousands of jobs. But what I don’t like is companies who, like “Big Tobacco,” profit not only in spite of but directly because of people’s addictions and suffering.  Sure, no one would be selling if no one was buying, but that shouldn’t stop certain things from being regulated when they need to be, just like tobacco.

But you can’t wait around for laws and regulations to change or for companies to have a come-to-Jesus moment. You could end up waiting for a lifetime and then some. Sometimes you have to regulate things for yourself. If it’s not the best way to do things, it’s at least the first way.

When & Where the Web Went Wrong

The big, bad business model certainly applies to sites that run ads (TED included) but even sites that don’t run ads and who don’t use the big, bad ad-based business model still have the same key elements of being optimized for addiction.

The most notable example is Netflix. Netflix doesn’t have a free version. It doesn’t run ads, at least not on its own platform. No matter if you watch 1 hour of Netflix a month or 730 hours in a month (that’s all the hours in a month), Netflix is still getting its $9-16/month. So why does Netflix use eyeball harvesting tactics like algorithm recommendations, push and email notifications, and autoplay?

I can’t remember where I heard this and I wish I could find the source, but I remember reading/hearing/watching someone say that the reason Netflix keeps people addicted is that if subscribers don’t watch a minimum amount of Netflix, they will cancel their Netflix account. And if memory serves correctly, the source implied that Netflix was going above and beyond the minimum amount required to retain subscribers. If you know what I’m talking about, please leave a comment!

The idea that Netflix is being way too extra in keeping its subscribers seems pretty legit to me. In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that the company’s biggest competitor is sleep. Not Prime. Not Hulu. Not cable TV. Not Redbox. Not HBO or Showtime. Not work or school. Sleep. If that’s not extra, I don’t know what is.

The main tenet of our current attention economy is that attention is a finite resource and that whoever can capture and keep the most of it is the winner. He who has the gold eyeballs makes the rules.

The attention economy is the new land grab. In the 17th and 18th centuries, mercantilism was the principle of the economy that led to the land grab of colonialism. In the 1800s, the industrial revolution led to the supremacy of steel, oil, and the horizontal and vertical integration of those industries via monopolies and big businesses. Then, following two World Wars came the Space Race and the age of information. Land, steel, oil, information, and now attention.

Land, steel, and oil are all finite resources on this planet. Information and human knowledge may not be infinite but it is certainly less finite than land steel and oil. Information, being less finite was, therefore, less valuable in the strictest sense, where the more scarce something is, the more valuable it is. And information was quickly made open and free via the web.

As Jaron Lanier states8, there was a big push in Silicon Valley for the internet and the web to be free to all and open but at the same time, Silicon Valley heralded tech entrepreneurs. These two things were at first conflicting. You can’t have multi-millionaire (and now multi-billionaire and soon trillionaire), tech entrepreneurs if everything is free. The solution was advertising and the boom of the attention economy. The tech entrepreneurs, instead of taking our money in exchange for a service, would take our eyeballs. The eyeballs could then be sold to a third party (the advertisers). After all, attention is more finite than information.

Now, everyone has to play this game or risk being left behind. Everyone, every business, every website that wants to make money on the internet is playing. Everyone. Everyone from Facebook and Twitter to Men’s Health and Cosmo and Forbes, to Netflix and Amazon, to the blogger/influencers selling their online courses and ebooks.

Websites on the internet don’t exist just out of the kindness of the site owner’s heart. (Except for mine haha!) Websites cost money. Bandwidth costs money. Servers cost money. And someone has to pay for all of that. If WordPress could not boast that it powers 36% of the web, advertisers would not be putting ads on WordPress sites and my site would not be free for me to use and to make posts. Websites are businesses. The overwhelming majority are businesses. Facebook is a business. Perhaps not in the obvious, e-commerce way where they sell physical products or a service but a business is a business, and businesses exist to make money and cannot exist without money. Period.

Every website needs your eyeballs to survive and our attention is limited. Our eyeballs are limited by time. We only have so much time in the day. But the web and the biggest players in the attention economy want it all. They want it all so that their competitors can’t have any in the same way Britain wanted to colonize the whole damn world so that France and Spain wouldn’t get a piece of the pie. And if it’s not about making sure their competitors have less, at the very least it’s about making sure they don’t get stuck with crumbs.

Digital Junk Food

With all of this vying for attention, not only was the web designed to harvest eyeballs, but this design shaped the type of content that flourished in this new online attention grab. Certain headlines do better than others, particularly those that contain negative superlatives such as “never,” and “worst.” Content is developed in bite-size listicles that are easy to skim. Articles are written with SEO optimization and keywords in mind. The most shocking and outrageous content, not necessarily the best content or the most truthful and accurate content, is the most clicked on content.

As Micheal Simmons demonstrated in the article I cited (#7 on the sources list), the internet was designed for junk food content and infotainment. Also, not surprisingly, (and really no shade to Michael) his article is titled “Most people think this is a smart habit- but it’s actually brain-damaging.” The habit that is apparently so bad it’s “literally” giving you brain damage is using the internet, articles, and podcasts for learning. He has an online course/membership to sell that helps people learn (I can’t knock that kind of hustle; don’t hate the player, hate the game) and Michael is playing the game too with his shocking article headlines. And it worked. I didn’t buy anything but I read the article. He got my attention.

Conclusion

And this is the part of the show where Larry comes out and sings a silly song I insert my call to action. If I was most websites, I’d be trying to sell you something. Instead, I’ll just toot my own horn about how I’m not trying to sell you something.

Leave a comment if you like and try not to get lost in the rabbit hole at the bottom of this post. I decided to include all of the links at the bottom of my posts from now on so you don’t get distracted reading. What do you think about that? Was it helpful to you?

If you read all of this, thank you for your time and your attention. You only have so much of it. If you don’t want to leave a comment then please don’t. But the call-to-action that I would really like for you to do is this:

Click off of this post, close the app, or the browser you’re using, power off your device. All the way young lady/man/person. And go outside if you can. Or read a book. Give someone a hug (if it’s safe and consensual/you two don’t have the ‘rona). Or just sit and breathe. Count 5 red things you see right now. Think of 5 things you’re grateful for. Go brush your teeth and go to sleep if it’s time for you to sleep. And if you’d like to really make me happy, leave your device all the way off for 8 hours. Or 12. Or 24. Shoot, why not 36 or 48 or 72. And when you decide to turn your device back on, give someone a call, be it an audio-only call or video call. Use the internet, not the web.

Be onlife instead of online. Go be a human, not just a pair of eyeballs. 


Sources aka The Rabbit Hole (Enter at your own risk!)

  1. US Inflation Calculator
  2. For further reading on internet porn addiction: Your Brain On Porn
  3. Streaming TV hijacked my brain — and almost derailed my life
  4. Web vs Internet
  5. My beef with social media
  6. WARNING: This is a YouTube link. Don’t get sucked in. A quote from this video is how I came up with the term eyeball harvesting. At 13:32 – “In order to guarantee that there will be eyeballs on the screens for longer and more eyeballs on the screen, they’ve [social media companies] deliberately fostered negative emotions.” That being said, I think this video is well worth a watch/listen in its entirety and I’m putting the video here so that you won’t have to go on YouTube to see it.
  7. “the Internet was designed to be a junk learning machine”
  8. WARNING: YouTube link. Don’t get sucked in. This is Jaron Lanier’s TED talk on how the internet shaped the attention economy. Start at 4:50-7:32.

Featured Photo Background by Douglas Bagg on Unsplash, designed by Dania Danielle on Canva

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