Greg Hochmuth was one of the first software engineers hired at Instagram. He worked on a team in 2012 that developed the first Android app for the slick photo-sharing service. In its first 24 hours, the app was downloaded more than one million times.
But Mr. Hochmuth eventually came to realize that the platform’s pleasing features — the interface that made it easy for people to upload and share beautiful images, the personalized suggestions of accounts to follow — also had potential downsides.
The same design qualities that make an app enthralling, he said, may also make it difficult for people to put down. And the more popular such services become, the more appeal they hold for users — a phenomenon known as the network effect.
“Once people come in, then the network effect kicks in and there’s an overload of content. People click around. There’s always another hashtag to click on,” Mr. Hochmuth, who left Instagram last year and started his own data consulting firm in Manhattan, told me recently. “Then it takes on its own life, like an organism, and people can become obsessive.”
Now Mr. Hochmuth and Jonathan Harris, an artist and computer scientist, have collaborated on a project that explores the implications of such compelling digital platforms for the human psyche. Titled “Network Effect,” the site invites users to click through a video and audio smorgasbord of human behavior. It includes 10,000 clips of people primping, eating, kissing, blinking and so on.
Unlike delectable cooking apps or engrossing music streaming apps that may elicit pleasure responses in the brain, however, the voyeuristic site is deliberately disjointed and discomfiting. To challenge the idea that people entirely exercise free will during their online sessions, the site also automatically turns itself off after a few minutes, shutting out users for 24 hours.
“The endpoint makes you reflect,” Mr. Hochmuth said. “Do I want to keep browsing and clicking and being obsessed? Or do I want to do something else?”
As the site underscores, digital life keeps us hooked with an infinite entertainment stream as its default setting. Tech companies often set it up that way.
There’s Facebook beckoning with its bottomless news feed. There’s Netflix autoplaying the next episode in a TV series 10 seconds after the previous one ends. There’s Tinder encouraging us to keep swiping in search of the next potential paramour.
And then there are the constant notices and reminders — a friend liked your photo or tweet; a colleague wants to connect with you on LinkedIn; an Evite awaits your response — which automatically induce feelings of social obligation. You damn yourself to distraction if you respond, and to fear of missing out if you don’t.
Tech companies tend to present these feedback loops as consumer conveniences. A new Intel TV ad, for instance, shows a young girl in the back of a car growing sad because the laptop on which she was watching a singalong video suddenly runs out of power. The company’s new battery-preserving processor, though, ultimately saves the day, “so you never have to stop watching.” T-Mobile has just introduced BingeOn, a feature that offers subscribers on certain plans unlimited high-speed access to popular streaming video channels.
There’s even an industry term for the experts who continually test and tweak apps and sites to better hook consumers, keep them coming back and persuade them to stay longer: growth hackers.
“How do you drive habitual use of a product?” said Sean Ellis, the chief executive of GrowthHackers.com, a software company specializing in online growth techniques. “It’s not just about getting new people. It’s about retaining the people you already have and, ultimately, getting them to bring in more people.”
As an example, Mr. Ellis described how he recently started using a free meditation app, called Calm, which has a calendar feature that gently nudges subscribers to use the service more. Every time he finishes a session, the app “shows me I’m doing one every three to four days,” Mr. Ellis said. “But it’s clear to me that I should be doing one every day, based on the graphic.”
Yet technologists like Tristan Harris, a design ethicist who is also a product philosopher at Google, warn that growth hacking, taken to its extreme, can encourage sites and apps to escalate their use of persuasive design techniques with potentially unintended consequences for consumers. He compares online engagement maximization efforts to the so-called bliss-point techniques some food companies have developed to hook consumers on a stew of fat, salt and sugar.
“The ‘I don’t have enough willpower’ conversation misses the fact that there are 1,000 people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down the self-regulation that you have,” said Mr. Harris, who emphasized that he was speaking only for himself and not for Google.
Mr. Harris is also the co-director of an effort called Time Well Spent, which encourages tech companies to provide more choices for users who would like to limit session-prolonging techniques like autoplaying one video or song after another. He said he envisioned alternative app designs that might measure success not in followers, connections, endorsements or likes accumulated, but in meaningful relationships developed or desired jobs offered.
“Right now, many company leaders and designers would like to do these things differently, but the incentives aren’t aligned to do this,” Mr. Harris said. Certainly, it may be difficult for efforts like Time Well Spent and art projects like “Network Effect” to sway companies that find themselves in increasingly heated competition for online users’ attention.
Mr. Ellis, the chief of GrowthHackers, said that the biggest sites and apps “can have ethical conversations about good attention and bad attention.” For many other online platforms, he said, “ethical or not, not aspiring to drive engagement and attention means you are likely to go out of business.”
Still, companies may eventually find a profit motive in monitoring and inhibiting Internet addiction.
In Canada, for instance, casinos have tried developing computer algorithms to identify slot machine players whose behavior is clearly becoming addictive and then intervene, said Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in the department of media, culture and communication at New York University, who has studied gambling design. Ethics aside, she said, it’s a way for companies to maintain profits — by not draining their customer base.
Social networks and online game companies have even more detailed data on how much time people spend on their sites and how often they click, she said.
“It makes sense that companies should do something about it, not just to be good corporate citizens, but to protect profits,” Professor Schüll said. “We need to have a conversation about how to respond to this — they could send alerts or allow people to set their own thresholds on time.”
Mr. Hochmuth, the co-author of the “Network Effect” project, said he was hopeful that market forces would eventually inspire sites and apps to explore more varied designs and user interfaces.
“I think something will actually change — the question is where will change come from?” he said, noting that the organic food movement started with small producers, not the mass-produced food industry. Online services that give users more options and control, he concluded, “may not come from the incumbent players.”