Facebook is like a big house that’s turned into a menagerie. While it generously welcomes us all, some of its rooms shelter elephants conveniently hidden in plain view. Ladies and gentlemen, behold one of the most controversial social media pachyderms out there: Porn.
Is that an outraged “no!” that I hear? Yes, we all (or at least, some of us) know that Facebook prohibits the “sharing [of] any graphic content for sadistic pleasure” and that “limitations on the display of nudity” are balanced against “people’s right to share content of personal importance”. It’s all written down in the platform’s Community Standards. But where there’s a will, there’s a way to bend the rules and go about your X-rated sharing business undisturbed.
First things first, a little cover up won’t hurt, as the virtual Red Light District cannot afford to put up shiny lights to advertise its latest offers. Basic trick: choose a harmless username and save your explicit headline for the page proper. After all, it’s the former that might draw unwanted attention and the latter that conveniently pops up in searches on Facebook.
Once incorporated as 18+ Ltd in the virtual business world, you’ve got to keep things going and put some marketing efforts into it. And marketing we’ve got, in several flavors and shapes: like other pages that will DEFINITELY show you what you want, share an app on your wall, or simply like/share/tag a cheeky photo on your Wall (Wall, Timeline…who gives a damn about these technicalities, right?). It’s all for a good cause!
Let’s take these beauties one by one. Horny Bitches or Nudes? Take your pick. Either way, you get to the same destination: a maze of Facebook pages, each claiming to be able to deliver a genuine peep show… soon (now don’t get impatient!). In the meantime, just like them, spread the word about them to your friends and work really hard at developing enjoyment deferment skills.
Does this teasing strategy really work? You be the judge of it: a practically blank community page created on October 19 gets more than 3,000 people to like it in under a week.
Back to the 18+ Ltd headquarters, perhaps we’d be more inclined to install an app instead of just keeping our fingers crossed for the nudes to shine down upon us. Good news! You have plenty of options there too: be it a Gangnam style’o'meter, a death date or “how will I look?” predictor, just take your pick for the time of your life. They are all fitted with a nice survey maze right at the end.
But wait? Weren’t we looking for adult content here? How did we get to this app dead-end? The hot chick won’t chat with us unless we do it. Right! That does make sense.
The 18+ Ltd offer is quite strong on the social engineering side. So far we’ve seen the “hot chick will chat with you if you do x” arsenal at work and where it might take us. There’s more where that came from:
Taking a step back to get a good look at the whole affair, this would be the rough representation of what takes you where:
As you can see, going even through at least part of these moves takes some time and quite a few clicks. Common sense would have us say that the popularity of a thing may well be affected by how much effort you are required to put in so as to get it. How do we then reconcile the thousands of likes, comments and shares that the analyzed page has already collected with the strenuous ride its users have to take down to the 18+ land?
What Makes Us Click?
In this section of the article I have aggregated elements that might help us understand why users will take such an intricate route as the one described above and why the click craze will work against (at least some) efficiency odds.
These are the results of my quest for answers to the following questions:
a) Considering the renewed promises that “if you do x, you get to see y”, what makes users click when it comes to finding adult content? Is this type of deferring understood as part of the X-rated content seeking experience?
b) Why would someone looking for risqué photos end up installing a Gangnam-themed app? In other words, is there a reconfiguration of mental maps under the influence of an online logic?
Feeling Blue? Click Your Way to Happiness
A group of scientists from the Missouri University of Science and Technology recently conducted a study aiming to find possible correlations between users’ state of mind, with a focus on depressive symptoms, and their real Internet usage. The study participants were 216 undergraduates who, having been assessed based on a depression scale, were then monitored as they went on to use various online resources. Though the authors of the study specify that a more focused application of their test method, for instance one that would concentrate on the use of social media exclusively, is still necessary, one of the study conclusions is of particular interest here.
Thus, a correlation between the number of sources accessed within a short span of time and users’ ability to concentrate properly (one common depression symptom) sheds some light on what pushes people to “click till they drop”. “Frequent switching may also reflect an attempt to elevate feelings in the face of Anhedonia, when there is desperation to find something – an interesting article, an e-mail, a pleasing video etc., to derive a momentary spark of pleasure and elevate mood”, reads the researchers’ conclusion on Flow Duration Entropy (Kotikalapudi, Chellappan, Montgomery, Wunsch and Lutzen, 2012: 5).
Starting from this experiment and adding intuitively motivated elements, it is possible to build a short list of motives why people keep on clicking:
the availability of easily-accessible content – the basic advantage of using online resources;
the stringent necessity of satisfying a need;
the very low cost of searches – clicking under the illusion of anonymity.
Applying this checklist to the example discussed above, we can safely say that the number of clicks performed and the depth each user reaches within this maze of Facebook pages practically depends on how badly the viewer needs/wants to access the promised content.
The Cabbage-Donkey Algorithm
A second element that might help us better understand what is at play in the type of human-software interaction illustrated in the first part of the article is the difference between offline and online logic chains generated in users’ minds. To put it very simply, while in the offline world one would consider that looking for a cabbage and ending up with a donkey is somewhat of a failure, in the online environment this sinuous journey from one thing to another is basically part and parcel of the machine logic that sometimes leads you where your mind might not have.
It has been clear for a while that the Internet basically enables access to information and that it connects resources according to a machine logic that is not utterly unfamiliar to the human mind, but which might seem peculiar at times. Attempts have been made to include a semantic ingredient into this mix so as to enable people to pass from one piece of info to the other according to a conceptual relatedness logic. The description of the Semantic Web project points out precisely the need to make it so that the web “[…] is also about language for recording how the data relates to real world objects.” In fact, if successful, this project would “[allow] a person, or a machine, to start off in one database, and then move through an unending set of databases which are connected not by wires but by being about the same thing.”
Though this is a laudable aim, the web, in its current form, hasn’t yet come to that. “[…] It is data (not semantic information, which requires some understanding) and syntax (not meaning, which requires some intelligence) all the way through”, states researcher Luciano Floridi, in a paper entitled “Web 2.0. versus the Semantic Web: A Philosophical Assessment”, commenting on the ultimate purpose of the semantic web. These flaws lead Floridi to say that, in fact, if we maintain these principles of operation, we should be speaking about “the Machine-readable Web or indeed of the Web of Data.” (Floridi 2009: 8)
In an attempt to better define what the online world is now, the Oxford researcher introduces the concept of “participatory web” (Floridi 2009: 9), which is defined as “an achievable (and increasingly implemented) reality, represented no longer by the creation of another, external space, like Web 1.0, but by an ecosystem friendly to, and inhabited by, humans as inforgs (connected informational organisms)” (Floridi 2009: 10).
In other words, the online community is very likely to remain an environment within which humans manifest themselves rather than become a collection of machine agents (defined as an entities capable of deciding on a specific course of action on their own) endowed with a human-like power of understanding.
“The good news is that building the infosphere as a friendly environment for future generations is becoming easier. The bad news is that, for the foreseeable future, the responsibility for such a gigantic task will remain totally human”, concludes Floridi (Floridi 2009: 13).
Long story short, the conflict between how machines and humans read and correlate data still persists. As long as jumping from one thing to another online (and still believing that it all makes sense) is possible, then why not start off seeking naked chicks and end up calculating when you’re bound to die?
“Not now, dear!” Deferred Gratification Made Easy
In a 1990 paper entitled “A Hot/Cool-System Analysis of Delay of Gratification: Dynamics of Willpower”, Janet Metcalfe and Walter Mischel developed a model of analysis applicable to situations in which the play between impulse/emotion (the hot system) and willpower/cognition (the cool system) causes people to refrain or not from immediately obtaining what they want. The findings concerning the influence of a mental/visual representation of the reward as well as delay gratification under stress are particularly relevant for this article. By applying several test scenarios, the Columbia researchers found that proximity of the reward, the capacity to mentally evoke its “hot” characteristics as well as focusing on the reward will lead to shorter gratification delays. With stress, there is a more delicate balance that needs to be attained. Thus, while “[…] the hot system [is] potentiated by stress up to very high levels, […] the cool system is at first potentiated (at levels that one might better label “arousal” rather than “stress”). However, as the stress level increases, the cool system becomes increasingly dysfunctional, leaving the hot system to dominate processing.” (Metcalfe, Mischel, 1990: 6)
Back to our hot chicks on Facebook story, the promise that the very enticing photo that you see might come to life and actually talk to you makes deferred gratification a very difficult job. Though the page in question does not host hard core pornographic content, being caught as you take a look at cheeky photos does add some stress to the situation, and, depending on the hot/cold balance described above, might lead you to click a thousand times before you realize what you are doing.
Raghavendra Kotikalapudi, Sriram Chellappan, Frances Montgomery, Donald Wunsch and Karl Lutzen. Associating Depressive Symptoms in College Students with Internet Usage Using Real Internet Data. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 2012 retrieved from http://web.mst.edu/~chellaps/papers/12_tech-soc_kcmwl.pdf
Luciano Floridi. Web 2.0. versus the Semantic Web: A Philosophical Assessment, Episteme. Volume 6, Page 25-37 DOI 10.3366/E174236000800052X, ISSN 1742-3600, Available Online Feb 2009, retrieved from http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/publications/pdf/w2vsw.pdf
Janet Metcalfe and Walter Mischel. A Hot/Cool System Analysis of Delay of Gratification: Dynamics of Willpower. Psychological Review, 1999, Vol 106, No.1, 3-19 retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/metcalfe/Old%20Lab%20Webpage/PDFs/Metcalfe%20Mischel%201999.pdf