For the most part, we live our lives faced with a diverse array of options. We each make our own individual choices, based largely on personal preference when it comes to things like what we eat, what music we listen to, or what we spend our spare time doing. Most often, we are the happiest when we are involved in the experiences that suit us best. But from time to time, an anomaly pops up, and we find something that seems to transcend human preference. For example, across the world’s diverse cuisines, there are a few ingredients that seem to pop up wherever you look. Salt, sugar, grains and citrus are almost ubiquitous across the world, despite the vast diversity of culinary cultures which exist.
On the face of it, there is no reason why a taste like salt should be more pervasive than any other taste – such as the taste of cacao, turmeric or mint. Nonetheless, certain tastes seem to be universal, while others are confined to certain cultures. The reason for this is simple: while we are all defined by our individual choices and preferences, there are also fundamental commonalities that characterize all humans, and certain tastes are so successful precisely because they appeal to these commonalities. In the case of food, our taste buds are divided into five sections, each specialized to identify a certain taste: bitter, sour, sweet, salty and umami (effectively the taste of savouriness). In turn, these groupings developed so that we could better taste and enjoy a specific range of foods which would contribute to a healthy diet. For most of the history of human kind, salt was a scarce commodity, while a sour taste was a sign of the many immune-boosting vitamins often present in fruit. Being better able to detect bitter tastes meanwhile may have been a way for us to identify poisonous plants and fruits. So overtime, our taste buds developed certain specialities which in turn served to ensure that certain flavours were effectively fundamental to the human nature.
If we look at the number of people, especially from younger generations, who rely heavily on Facebook, or if we look at the numbers for certain other online phenomena, such as YouTube or Google, we are tempted to conclude then that they too allow us to access something fundamental to human nature. Indeed, in this case it is true; what Facebook and its online compatriots harness is not our sense of taste but something even more central to human existence: pleasure. So to understand Facebook’s success, we first have to understand how we find things pleasurable.
The human body runs off two different pleasure systems: opiates and dopamine. Opiates produce the placid contentment that comes after exercise, sex or completing a challenging task, while dopamine produces a more energetic, driving rush, which gives all animals a sense of purpose and enthusiasm. A balance between the two is essential; any animal that is slips into catatonic contentment too easily won’t have enough drive to go out and fulfill its basic needs or to remain vigilant against threats. It’s dopamine that keeps us active, that makes us derive excitement from curiosity and activity, which makes most human beings averse to total laziness. The dopamine rush is so invigorating that it accounts for the addictiveness of some of the most dangerous drugs, and when rats are given a switch wired to trigger their dopamine production, they will often press it until they pass out. But dopamine doesn’t deliver contentment, and without opiates working in conjunction, we would live our lives in a state of high frenzy, attaching little value to success, constantly seeking new stimulation but not drawing much from the results. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is the interplay of these responses that has made Homo-sapiens such a successful species, as it has allowed us to comprehend and creatively shape our environment. But sometimes, when environments change, evolutionary responses can be co-opted to work against their original purpose.
It may seem like a stretch to say that things like the Facebook news feeds or Google’s little search box represent something fundamental about human existence but, here, what these sites are harnessing is our drive for information. The way these sites are able to organize and present large amounts of information gets our dopamine going, but the cursory nature of the information presented ultimately proves unsatisfying, and so we get stuck in a dopamine feedback loop, constantly seeking new stimulation. The reason we normally feel compelled to watch a number of YouTube videos but don’t necessarily feel the urge to watch another movie or even short film after the first is that YouTube videos mostly tend to provide more basically stimulating gratification, be it a quick laugh or a flashy music video, whereas the structured progression of more complex movies leads us to a conclusion that is akin to reaching the end of a puzzle or completing a task. In the latter case, we are left satisfied, in the former, merely stimulated. Operating only on dopamine is often contrary to the sort of slow, measured progress that is needed to succeed in more challenging and complex tasks. Dopamine provides motivation, but not diligence. This also means that as we become more accustomed to situations where we are constantly seeking dopamine-based stimulation, we are likely to demand instant gratification more assertively and more often. And indeed, internet addiction is becoming an increasingly prevalent condition – with the symptoms of withdrawal often mirroring drug addiction in many ways.
In all fairness, other studies have shown that people who frequently use Facebook demonstrate a greater ability to multi-task. Along the same vein, there are also studies which suggest that regular internet use can help boost your IQ. But these findings are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is possible to have a population better able to multitask – and perhaps even getting smarter – which is affected by a diminishing attention span which makes the completion of complex tasks ever more difficult.
When companies discover, or stumble upon, something that seems to appeal nearly universally, they gain a great deal of power and significance. Heinz produced a ketchup which stimulated all five basic taste receptors – bitter, sour, sweet, salty and umami – and as a result came to dominate the market in ketchup. Facebook’s market share is not in condiments, nor even simply in social networking, rather what Facebook, YouTube and all the rest represent are the way we access and order information. By co-opting our dopamine responses to get us addicted, they also ensure that the information we access increases in breadth as it decreases in depth. This means reading many more news headlines but fewer (or at least shorter) articles, browsing more status updates but doing so in the time it takes to have a proper conversation about someone’s day. And the ever-growing popularity of Twitter serves to reinforce, and is symptomatic of, a world that may be rapidly developing a 130 character attention span.