How Facebook Seduced Billions of Users

3 minute read
| Analysis

There is much research on how basic human behavior has led to the success of Facebook. This is a short exploration of three factors.

Screenshot from Joanna Stern's Facebook Video

Facebook watches everything. Image credit: Wall Street Journal

Facebook is Free! So It Must Be Good!

First, research by TotalMoney has revealed that 40 percent of Facebook users do not realize that the company is selling information about them.

In fact half those surveyed said they would leave Facebook if it did so, and 60 percent of 18 to 24 year olds said they would leave.

Considering that, as of December 2017, Facebook had 2.2 billion registered users, 40 percent is a lot of people. That may well be because a lot of stuff on the internet is free, and so potential users pass on research and just take it as a given that this is one more of those splendid free services.

This psychology is discussed in Fastcodesign: Admit It, You Don’t Really Understand Facebook.” It gets right to the point.

Ask the next five people you meet (who don’t work in tech) how they think Facebook really made more than $40 billion in revenue last year. Most people can happily tell you that Apple stays in business by selling phones and laptops, Ford sells cars, and NBC commercials. But when it comes to the internet–the foundation of the 21st century economy–it’s a struggle for normal people to articulate how companies like Facebook can be so successful when the services and news they provide are free.

Of course, Facebook didn’t have to go with free. The company could have charged a fee for its services, but the company realized that any cost at all would be harmful to the business model it constructed. The ostensible explanation is that potential users who have smartphones, pay monthly carrier fees and a monthly ISP bill just wouldn’t be able to afford Facebook. For more background see: “Mark Zuckerberg Says Privacy Is for the Rich.

Information Overload & Indecision

A second factor that comes into play is the well-known effect of how information overload can lead to decision paralysis or what psychologists call “decision fatigue.” See this U.S. News article: “The Hazards of Decision Overload.” This effect leads to no decisions or bad decisions.

Research has found that having to make too many decisions can deplete willpower or self-control, causing you to avoid certain choices or to make ones that don’t sync with your long-term goals and values.

The depletion of self-control or willpower is “like a muscle getting tired: The longer and harder you work it, the more tired it will get,” explains Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University…

Stressed woman

In other words, at the very time when Facebook (and other social media systems) customers should be spending their time making conscious decisions about how to allocate time and resources, they are increasingly overloaded by new and tantalizing features, kitten videos, opportunities to post family photos, apparent outrages, and news about everything that’s happening to everybody. To name a few.

The outward trimmings, fascinations and rewards of the service both serve to distract and deter the user from making more deliberate decisions about the scope of their activities. It’s basically an addiction, and escape routes are something to be avoided thanks to decision paralysis.

Next page: Two psychological biases used. And some ways out.

3 Comments Add a comment

  1. Duane Bemister

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    blockquote>The ostensible explanation is that potential users who have smartphones, pay monthly carrier fees and a monthly ISP bill just wouldn’t be able to afford Facebook!
    Why doesn’t FaceBook offer a no tracking, no ads option for $20.00 a year? $40 billion in revenue divided by 2 billion active users. works out to 5 cents a day. Seems like a good deal to retain your privacy.

  2. Lee Dronick

    A perfect time for someone to come out with a Facebook killer. One that is ad driven, maybe with an ad free option, yet that respects its users.

  3. vpndev

    It is a sad comment on “the land of the free” that actual information freedom rules are found not here but in the old places the Founders criticized and left.

    Truth be told, there is a place for Government, and it should be light rather than heavy. But it must always facilitate the good of the people as a whole rather than the interests of a few.

    It is unfortunately true that many of our politicians – regardless of party affiliation – have lost lost sight of that essential truth.

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