The ethics of social networks: let’s start considering it

4 minute read

What’s the main difference between successful Google applications (search, maps, news, email) and a successful social applications? With Google applications we return to the app to do something specific and then go on to something else, whereas great social applications are designed to lure us back and make us never want to leave.

— Adam Rifkin (2010) “Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications…”

Rifkin in this article does a really nice analysis of the online social network barons using some animal metaphors.
With those fluffy words, it does an interesting thing: it shows how all those social networks are filled with “tricks” able to leverage our motivations and the most ancient parts of our brain. It’s almost a subtle action-reaction game, and Facebook, Twitter, Quora, Foursquare and all the other players are using them really well.

What’s scary for me is that while Rifkin shows a lot of dirty tricks — at the point of suggesting that Google should use them — he’s completely ignoring what does those things mean!

Why people play Farmville, for example?

The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.

— A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz (2010) “Cultivated Play: Farmville”


Our brains are usually wired in a certain way and we can easily use that wiring to induce some kind of actions. Statistically, it works. But:

  • It can be used for good, helping us to perform tasks, to learn, to improve ourselves, to improve our character, to make our relationships better, to grow.
  • It can be used for bad, deceiving us to buy a product, to spend some more time somewhere, to think something else, to try a new drug.

Knowing this, we could try to avoid them, exactly like we are able to ignore commercials or to develop our banner blindness. But since our brain is wired that way, we have to make a continuous conscious decision to avoid those tricks.

We have to make a continuous conscious decision to avoid those tricks.

This is why that article troubles me: it shows almost everything, and never, ever, he stops for a second thinking about the ethical implications of those choices to build a social network.

From the strict perspective of Rifkin’s article, I would say: hooray Google. You keep trying not being evil, at the cost of ignoring the evil power of those tricks and trying instead to use them in a good way. Buying social companies and integrating them in a useful way instead of keeping the social rat running, for example, could show some more light on some companies acquired and disappeared. Please, continue this way if this is the reason.

What you can do

Since those tricks are designed to make use of how you brain is wired, you have to make a continuous conscious effort to avoid being caught.

More pragmatically, you have to pay a lot of attention because they are everywhere and they are designed to steal the most precious thing you have: your time.

…and consequently your money and your health.

How could you see the difference between a good use and a bad use? It’s hard and easy at the same time: check if the sociality is forwarded to an objective.
And note that even strictly social activities are objectives: keeping in touch with friends is good, by itself: it’s good when you “open Facebook to talk with your friends” (the service helps you) instead of “checking Facebook” (the service itself is the subject). It’s good when you are sending a tweet to your friends to tell them that it was a bad day but now it’s okay (service helps), instead of retweeting the last lolcat (again, the service itself is the end).

When you think about it, the difference isn’t even so subtle between the two: are you using a social network for sociality, or are you using a social network… to use the social network?

The medal has always two sides

All of this doesn’t mean that those are all bad tricks.
All of this doesn’t mean that you can’t make a good use of those social networks.

Just to take some examples from my near interests: BJ Fogg is doing some interesting works: the Behaviour Grid methodology, the past Mobile Healt 2010 and even a book, Texting 4 health. At the same time Frog Design is doing some nice design concepts.

I’m not saying that the tricks – or better wording: cognitive and attention hooks – are bad. They are neutral.

But you can use them to an end. And that defines if  you’re stealing the life of your users, or if you’re helping them.

It scares me thinking that not many people in my industry are thinking about the ethics of their companies and design choices. Shouldn’t we consider it a bit more?