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The Trick Facebook Added To Make Us All Hooked On Social Media

Did you know Facebook didn’t used to support tagging and liking?

When apps like Facebook first debuted, they didn’t allow users to “like” other posts or tag users. It’s not a stretch to say the like button was one of the best innovations of the last decade, but perhaps also the worst at the same time.

Tagging and liking on social media were not part of the original business model, as author and productivity expert Cal Newport has explained.

These “approval indicators” as they are known were invented after the fact. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the “like” button was not added to Facebook until 2007, three years after the social network launched.

In his books, Newport has said that the iPhone (released the same year) was never intended to be an all-day device where we scroll on Twitter like zombies.

When Steve Jobs announced the product, he suggested it was more like an MP3 player that could double as a phone. Newport says social media created a frenzy of activity where we mindlessly scroll all day. It’s now business as usual, funneling billions into the coffers of social media platforms.

Newport equates this perfunctory, robot-like doom scrolling with how people use a slot machine in Las Vegas. He’s not kidding. The experts at social media companies studied slot machines and how they become so addictive and then modeled likes and tagging after gaming machines.

You “win” when you see likes on your posts. Curiously, we barely know this is happening. Facebook recently overhauled their interface in browsers and made it look much more appealing with bright colors and extra white space. In essence, they made it look more like a slot machine than ever before.

We are participating in constant unstructured conversations, and yet our brains were not designed to work in this haphazard way. We like to focus for short periods—let’s say seven minutes at a time—and accomplish one thing. We feel productive and find meaning and purpose that way. We did something. The whole idea with social media, conversely, is to switch focus constantly from one thing to another. Baby pictures for a few seconds, then wedding shots, then pictures of grandma. It’s a willing, constant, obsessive, and chaotic overload of our senses all day long.

Our brains need occasional periods of serenity. You can try an experiment right now to see how this works. Because visual information accounts for 30 percent of brainpower, the simple act of closing your eyes can create a sense of calm. (Taking a nap is even better.) Try closing your eyes for only seven minutes, taking deep breaths as you do. You’ll feel relaxed and calm because your brain had a quick respite.

One thing that’s critically important to understand about constant social media use is that it’s a way to alleviate pain. We might not even know which pain we’re trying to alleviate. It might be so deep-seated in us that we’re not aware of it. Pain due to conflict at home, depression caused by working too much on meaningless tasks. We’re craving false stimulation and a dopamine reward in our brains, and we don’t even know why. We’re seeking approval and credibility with our peers, but we have never met half of those so-called peers. We “like” because we want to be liked.

The desire to impress others is a widespread psychological pursuit known as the sociometer. We have social radars, and they are always on full alert. Another irony is that while we try to alleviate the stress of life by using social media, we’re actually creating more stress in our pursuit. We don’t measure up to everyone else. That false sense of stress relief creates a vicious cycle as we crave more false rewards.

None of it works.

Once we realize social media won’t provide the answers we’re looking for, the next question is, Where do we look instead?

Good question, I’m so glad you asked.

Meaning has to come first, then work. Purpose must live inside of us before we start striving after something ephemeral like workplace satisfaction. Whenever we try to find meaning and purpose in work, we’ll find that work won’t quite satisfy us.

I’ve tried to find meaning through my tasks. Sad to say, it doesn’t work. Working hard won’t make you feel better about yourself. Good productivity won’t change your life or improve relationships.

What does work? First finding meaning and purpose. Then you can view work (and social media) as nothing more than a means to an end because you are acting on the purpose you’ve already found. It changes everything about how you work.

Social media is merely the most obvious example of how some of us try to find meaning through clicking, liking, sharing, and commenting. Maybe if we keep scrolling through Instagram we’ll relieve some anxious thoughts. There’s a tendency to think we are “working” toward some goal when in fact it’s an illusion of work.

I like how writer Emily Gould explained that she spent years writing a novel and tricked herself into thinking she was being productive by posting on Twitter. She felt productive, but it was actually just an escape from work.

Isn’t that what a lot of our quests for success look like? We strive after work and we strive after meaning, and suddenly we realize it was all a waste of time.

Social media is the most obvious waste of time right now.

While many of us use social media as a salve while we’re waiting in line at Starbucks, we can become much more intentional about how we use these apps. We can use social media in a much more purposeful way. Determine the meaning and purpose you have first, then view social media as merely a tool to help you do your job.

Excerpt from my book The 7-Minute Productivity Solution.