From Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design

The key point is the affective pursuit of flow by individuals can be assimilated to capitalism’s imperative for perpetual circulation as the source of profit. Getting into the “zone” and staying there is a form of productive labor, and exceedingly exploitable because the worker achieves a kind of Zen indifference to her condition — hypnotized by Taylorism, implemented at the platform level by machine designers.

The same sort of collusion is at work with social media, whose platforms are also highly designed with interactivity and intermittent rewards geared toward maximizing data extraction and time-on-site. The rewards are provide by capricious peers, not a random number generator.

But the nature of the zone sought by users seems significantly different. Machine gamblers want to extinguish the self and its burden of responsibility for various reciprocal interactions. Social media users are looking to gain a self in the archive through a series of procedures that off-load the self in the sense of delegating responsibility for coming to terms with the meaning of one’s personal experience to algorithms and audiences.

Social media use is often a way of controlling how one feels, a kind of self-medication for dealing with anxiety and loss of control and overstimulation and loneliness and so on — it’s not typically a calculating routine of personal-brand building or ideal-self projection. We try to regulate affective states with it, the way machine gamblers (or opiate addicts, for that matter) try to with their engagement with their addictions, and this leads to a similar by-product of productivity for those firms in position to harvest it.

Perhaps the key point of similarity between the zones of gambling and social media is “continuity.” People gamble because they are seeking action, a managed set of risks that distract us from the uncontrollable risks of being in the world (of having an identity). Gambling-experience design, as Schüll details in the book, is about continual modulation of the player’s sensorium so as to maintain an equilibrium between sensation, distraction, control, and enchantment. 

The continuity of social media has more to do with its making connectivity ubiquitous, of being always on and responsive to our flashes of social curiosity and anxiety. Is anyone thinking of me? What are people doing? Do I belong? Am I connected? The processes of using social media are continuous in that sense, they allow us to digest our memories and fears and excrete commercially useful information. 


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