One of my obsessions in the last year has been how firms seeking to optimise their platforms influence user behaviour in the process. On one level, influencing users in this way is the goal, as real time data allows continuous optimisation to increase user engagement i.e. encouraging users to engage with more content, spend longer on the platform and return more frequently. But on another level, the growth hacking methodologies which dominate this activity produce unintended consequences. The approach is described here in Roger McNamee’s Zucked online 1190:
From late 2012 to 2017, Facebook perfected growth hacking. The company experimented constantly with algorithms, new data types, and small changes in design, measuring everything. Every action a user took gave Facebook a better understanding of that user—and of that user’s friends—enabling the company to make tiny improvements in the “user experience” every day, which is to say they got better at manipulating the attention of users. The goal of growth hacking is to generate more revenue and profits, and at Facebook those metrics blocked out all other considerations.
In terms of mapping the contours of user behaviour, the metrics available to platforms are sophisticated. But from a hermeneutical point of view, they are a remarkably crude instrument. What matters to the growth hacker using these tools is the accumulation of attention, not how it is deployed. In my recent work, I’ve offered the idea of amplification-itis to make sense of where this can lead: a condition in which pursuit of online popularity becomes an end in itself, pursued through an overriding concern with how widely what you shares circulates on a platform.
This is something which there would always be a possibility of catching simply because human agents have a generic concern for social standing. But growth hacking produces conditions which incubate amplification-itis in an unprecedented way and it has spread to the status of a pandemic. Hence Twitter’s recent concern with ‘conversational health’ and introduction of Terms of Services changes which clamp down on some of the behaviours this condition can give rise to. They’ve recognised the harm which the pursuit of amplification as an end in itself causes, with its tendency to undermine the reasons why people use the platform in the first place. But do they recognise how their own activity has lead it to spread as widely and as virulently as it has?