Two years ago, I cofounded a company that collects data on the kinds of content people like and dislike on the internet. We’ve analyzed the content that over 10,000 people around the world loved online–with their permission. Usually, my spiel goes something like this: There are four kinds of content those people like–funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring. But I’ve only been telling half the story. When you look at what really engages people online, we all know that there’s a seething hellpot of content out there that’s neither funny nor useful nor beautiful nor inspiring. We collected data on that too, but never really analyzed it too closely because (a) it was too depressing and (b) because we didn’t want to work with any clients who were interested in it. So the data sat on a server, buried like Indiana Jones’s ark; too scary to open, too powerful to destroy.
A lot can happen in two years. Populists came to power; Facebook has been battered from all sides; Nazis have been goose-stepping over Twitter and the future of British politics has become, to paraphrase George Orwell, a clown’s shoe repeatedly stamping on a human face. It’s time to prize the lid off that data and talk about the dark side of online engagement.
When you start to see your Facebook content as either funny, useful, beautiful or inspiring, everything pretty much falls into place. The same is true of our genres of dark content; once you see them, you can’t unsee them. They’re sex, narcissism, sadism, and hate. Just as there are lots of different kinds of ways you can be funny or inspiring, there are lots of different ways you can be sucked into less wholesome content, from kids being pushed over by cats (schadenfreude) to full-on disaster porn (real life horror).
The harder/faster/weirder machine
Our research showed that dark content doesn’t fit into neat buckets in the ways that more mainstream content does. It sits in spectrums. The scary thing is how quickly you can go from one end of the spectrum to another. Recently several researchers have noticed that YouTube tends to push more extreme versions of the kinds of content you like to watch. Check out a few vegetarian recipes, you get vegan videos, then animal rights stuff. Get some video coaching on your running style and soon your sidebar fills up with “Run your first ultramarathon.” Watch some center-right commentators, and within a couple of videos you’re in the world of QAnon. Watch some center-left stuff, and YouTube starts throwing up Illuminati conspiracies. This isn’t an attempt by Google to radicalize us, it’s the result of the biggest experiment ever conducted into what engages us. The answer is clear: something more extreme than the thing we last watched.
Hollywood gets it. Marvel Studios makes its sequels bigger, louder, and funnier than the originals. When it applies to online content, it means that we’re being pushed from funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring stuff into something that appeals to us on a much deeper, and potentially more damaging, level.
Deep down, we’re all sadists
What makes us happy? For almost all the people we studied, the answer was: other people’s unhappiness. Any psychologist will tell you that this isn’t surprising. Kids as young as four will see a stranger’s suffering as a kind of cosmic retribution. We unconsciously conclude that bad things happen to people for a reason. Research also shows that same sense of natural justice tends to make people think badly of AIDS and rape victims while seeing rich people in a good light. When the Rohingya people were being massacred in Myanmar, local Facebook posts represented them as Bangladeshi criminals who had seized land from its ‘true owners’ (in truth, most had lived in Myanmar for generations). Now they were getting what they deserved. Although untrue, it fitted easily into the kinds of stories that humans want to believe: bad things happen to bad people. We’re hardwired for cosmic justice; it’s what makes Hamlet so powerful. It’s also what makes Twitter pile-ons, Russian dashcam footage, and The Darwin Awards so compelling.
Hook ups, behavioral economics and other ideas you’ll regret
There used to be a word for people who played on our darkest impulses to influence us. They were called demagogues, and if politics teaches us one thing, it’s that nothing good happens to countries that listen to them. Now we have a different word for those kind of people. We call them Behavioral Economists. Much of what Behavioral Economics does seems benign: nudging people into saving for retirement or taking the stairs rather than an elevator. But behavioral economics has gone far further than that. It’s made Facebook and Twitter so addictive that millions of people look at their smartphones in the morning before talking to their partner. Psychologist Philip Newall has coined the term “dark nudges” to describe the fiendish ways that gambling machines make themselves addictive: deliberate near misses, losses disguised as wins and illusory patterns all short-circuit psychological traits we’ve evolved for good reasons. Faced with half a million registered addicts, the U.K. government has moved to restrict the amounts you can gamble on any machine.
Our relationships are also being battered by dark nudges. Love is, in economic terms, inefficient. Saint Augustine said that we love when we value somebody beyond their actual worth. Technology is on hand to correct this inefficiency. No matter how great the person across the table in the restaurant may seem, according to Tinder there’s five other cuter, funnier, cleverer, better dressed people within a twenty-minute walk who are also into you. And when you go to the bathroom, your date will discover the same thing as they check their phone discretely under the table.
Behavioral Economics is a great way to sell stuff, get elected and make experiences ‘sticky’. In the same way, cigarettes are a great business model: so addictive that you’ll still buy them when you’re homeless and hungry. It doesn’t mean that either of these things are good for society. It took decades for us to realize how harmful and addictive tobacco, transfats and sugar were. People who rejected them were considered “fitness fanatics” and were treated the way we think about nudists today – yeah, maybe you’re healthier but… ew.
In time, the mainstream caught up with the fanatics, and today most people who aren’t Donald Trump accept that it’s a good idea to resist donuts, pizza, burgers and other round, bad food. Legislation is pushing back against cigarettes, fizzy beverages and other substances that short-circuit our powerful evolutionary urges to consume fatty, salty and sweet things. Recently, the U.S. Senate was presented with a bill that could ban certain dark nudges, but there’s a long way to go before it becomes law. So what can we do in the meantime?
Renouncing our instincts
Sigmund Freud first described the dark unconscious that is being so manipulated today. He may have also provided us with an escape route. In his last book, Civilization and its Discontents, he said that in order to live in a complex modern society we have to put aside a lot of our deepest instincts: violent impulses, hatred of out-groups, random sexual urges. At our best, said Freud, we engage each other in enlightened ways: appealing to our sense of fun, of wonder, of curiosity and our desire to learn. As Freud wrote: “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct.” When ideologies appeal to our most primal instincts, they often succeed but at terrible cost. Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents in exile in London, having fled the Nazi Anschluss of his native Austria.
People aren’t going to stop consuming dark content. All the evidence says that we can’t. Some creators will never stop producing it, because it’s all they do: pornographers gonna porn, Fox News gonna Fox. But many creators can. Brands hire behavioral economists to nudge us into making unwise decisions (You’ve been outbid! Don’t lose out!). Politicians employ companies like Cambridge Analytica to play to prejudice and fears. The onus is on them to stop.
Brands, politics, and society all prosper when we leave aside the darker kinds of persuasion and instead engage people by being funny, useful, beautiful, and inspiring. Let’s put the other stuff back in the box.
Brian Millar is the co-founder of Paddle Consulting, a company that collects data about the things that people love on the internet. @paddlepowered.