Facebook encourages short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that are destroying society: Ex-Facebook VP of user growth

Palihapitaya expressed guilt at playing a part in developing the tools that allowed Facebook to exploit human behavior.

In a "View from The Top Talk", addressing students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, CEO of Social Capital and Ex Facebook Vice President of User Growth Chamath Palihapitiya painted a scary picture of the social network and its consequences on human behavior. Facebook, according to Palihapitiya is built on psychology that creates a feedback loop of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward-motivated behavior. This creates a kind of feeding frenzy for social media reactions, that drive people to indulge in a series of tasks in the pursuit of Likes on Facebook, and having only short term, empty achievements to show at the end of it.

Image: Stanford Graduate School of Business

Chamath Palihapitiya Image: Stanford Graduate School of Business

"I think we all knew," Palihapitiya said, "in the back of our minds, even though we feigned this whole line of 'there probably aren't any really bad unintended consequences,' I think in the deep, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen. But I think the way we defined it was not like this. It literally is a point now, where I think we have created tools now that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are."

Palihapitiya went on to add, "If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, you have a chance to control and reign it in. And it is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools, and the things that you rely on. The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created, are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth, and its not an American problem, it's not about Russian ads, this is a global problem. So, we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave, by and between each other. And I don't have a good solution. My solution is that I just don't use these tools anymore. I haven't for years."

According to a report in The Verge, Palihapitiya's comments are the latest in a series of similar observations made by other people associated with Facebook, including Sean Parker, an early investor, and Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former project manager at Facebook. Palihapitiya joined Facebook in 2007 and went on to become the CEO of Social Capital, a VC firm founded by him in 2011, according to Quartz

Palihapitaya expressed guilt at playing a part in developing the tools that allowed Facebook to exploit human behavior and advocated for a more responsible process of funding startups, where capital was allocated to businesses that used technological interventions to improve human life. He noted that consumer internet businesses are built around exploiting psychology, and that an approach of rapidly prototyping different approaches to see what works and what does not is something that has proven to work for social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

Recent tests from Facebook include additional filtering options in the News Feed based on the type of content, a Resume feature borrowed from LinkedIn, subscriptions for news publications, comments with coloured backgrounds, autoplaying videos with the sound on, a Snooze feature to temporarily hide certain people or pages from your timeline and a Collections feature to organise liked posts in the News Feed. WhatsApp is piloting WhatsApp for Business as well as group voice calls. Instagram is evaluating a stop-motion tool for its stories feature and a standalone messaging service spun out of Instagram called Direct.

This approach of trying a bunch of different features to see what sticks, and what does not works for social networks, is a requirement for exploiting the fickle human psychology. However, a more consistent method is required for tackling hard problems, or addressing the most basic human needs. The approach does not work for tackling problems such as diabetes, delivering of precision medication to treat cancer, or educating significant portions of the world's population. Palihapitaya expressed support for new ventures that try to tackle the problems of climate change and shortage of critical resources such as food, water and energy, which is the kind of work he is currently doing as CEO of Social Capital. 

The entire talk is embedded below and is worth a watch. Scrub to 21:20 for the bit where Palihapitaya slams Facebook.


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