Second Sight

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 3 November 1999

Now that he has analysed more than 17,000 questionnaires about internet use filled out at America’s ABC News web site over the past year, a psychologist named David Greenfield believes he has proof positive that the internet is addictive.

He announced his findings to the American Psychological Association which, no doubt, will soon join the American Pediatric Association in condemning today’s media for its negative effects on the human mind and body.

Unfortunately for those who still rely on the pronouncements of such organisations to make decisions for themselves and their children, the studies on which they are based are ill-conceived, motivated by fear, and ultimately misinterpreted.

Take the Greenfield/ABC study, which concluded that 6% of internet users are addicted to the technology, based on their answers to a list of questions posed to them at the end of an article about internet addiction on the ABC News web site. So much for an unbiased sample.

Moreover, what sort of people, exactly, would choose to spend their evenings alone at the ABC News web site voluntarily answering survey questions about addictive behaviour, when they could have been engaged in any of the internet’s more social activities?

Might not the 17,000 folks who felt inclined to submit to the survey be predisposed to think of themselves as having a problem? At the very least, they do not represent a random sample.

This biased conception and analysis by the medical and psychological industries should not surprise us. Except for the mainstream media itself, who is more challenged by the advent of interactive technologies than doctors?

Today’s cyber-literate patients now second-guess treatments and look for alternative therapies online.

Worse, the explosion of new media has led to widespread awe and confusion - as well as a new class of pundits who are now revered even more than doctors.

When a shooting or social disaster occurs almost anywhere in the world, it is no longer doctors or psychiatrists who are interviewed on CNN or the BBC; today, media theorists are asked to decipher a nation’s psyche.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If the internet is, in fact, leading to the kinds of antisocial behaviour - gambling, obsessive investing, excess consumerism - that the addiction study suggests, we’ll need some good media theorists to parse out which of these technologies and implementations might be leading to such dangerous behaviour.

I suspect that it’s not the interactive media themselves that are creating addictions, but rather the marketing techniques of those who are implementing these media.

As someone who worked alongside the e-commerce specialists for four years in order to study their coercive techniques for a book on the subject, I have watched a communications medium get transformed into an electronic strip mall.

This was accomplished by translating and automating the most coercive weapons from the marketer’s arsenal to create a recipe for addiction and dependence.

For example, the most important quality for a marketer’s web site today is something called stickiness. This means, quite literally, the degree to which a web site holds a user within it.

Such sites are designed to fill your computer screen with pop-up windows that must be individually closed, or to nest features deep inside the individual site - like the speciality store deep inside the shopping mall - so that you can’t find your way out so easily.

The object of the game is to exert an inexorable pull on the user towards the buy button.

Interactive media gives the direct marketer a chance to customise his offering to each individual user in real time. The best new web sites reconfigure themselves based on the behaviour of the user.

They plant cookies on your computer that contain as much information as they know (or have bought) about you. If the last time you came to one of these sites you responded best to red buttons and offers that ended in 88 cents, then the cookie will help the site reproduce the conditions that led to the most loyal, consumptive behaviour from you.

Marketing psychologists call this technique pacing and leading. It is based on a form of hypnosis used by therapists, where the doctor will imitate your posture, breathing rate, and speech patterns in order to bring you into a state of trance. Computers allow for the automation of this same process.

Through the internet, thousands of individuals can be paced and led by the same site simultaneously, each user being drawn towards the kinds of compulsive buying that keep Nasdaq stocks meeting their quarterly earnings estimates.

The interactive media space is probably the best place yet to induce impulsive and addictive behaviour. Ironically, this has been accomplished by making the internet less, not more, interactive.

Instead of sharing our ideas or writing letters, we are encouraged to abandon the keyboard for the mouse - to click mindlessly through product offerings instead of expressing ourselves to others.