The Product Dilemma

Mohit Soni
8 min readDec 22, 2020

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The Social Dilemma — a recently released documentary on Netflix — catapulted concerning impact of social media to the fore of everyone’s mind. It made me think about the impact that a group of engineers, designers, and product managers are making on our society.

As a product manager, I want to make my product more engaging, meet revenue goals, and expand my user base but to what end.

Any product is built to solve some user problems and to achieve some business objectives. More often than not, the most significant business objective is to make money to maximize shareholders’ value. Hence, a product manager would always want to build an engaging product that has a large user community and the one that makes money.

The point seems trivial enough and is applicable to all the businesses. However, to understand the consequences of the social media platforms, we need to first dig deeper into how these platforms make money and what are they selling.

All major social media platforms are free to use for its users. They make money through advertisements shown to the users. If a user spends more time on the platform, then the platform can show more advertisements to the user. It will drive revenue growth. The goal of increasing user engagement stems from this business requirement.

Another metric that companies track is called click-through rate (CTR). It measures the ratio of users, who clicked on an advertisement to the total users who saw the advertisement. Companies need to show relevant advertisements to improve the CTR and to show relevant advertisements, companies need users’ data. This data helps in building machine learning models that can predict a user’s behaviour or action or need. So, while browsing whenever you get a message that asks your permission to collect your data to show more relevant content, rest assured that this data will be used to show you personalised advertisements.

This all looks pretty straight forward. So, what’s the problem?

“The gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception is the product.”
-Jaron Lanier (The Social Dilemma)

Social Media Addiction

The social media companies are employing scientific methods to integrate their product into the daily lives of its users. These methods are powerful enough to cause behaviour changes among its users. The Cue, Trigger, Response, Reward framework is used to make products addictive. It’s the same mechanism that makes people addicted to a slot machine.

There are hundreds of people and powerful algorithms working to grab and keep your attention. Have you ever wondered how the time flew by while scrolling to your social media feed? The feed never ends, thanks to the infinite scroll user design. Each refresh of the feed might give you fresh updates and to make it more engaging now you have a series of short videos that are shown by the platform without you selecting which video to watch. All these and many more such features are carefully crafted to keep you hooked to the platform.

Thousands of combinations of colours are tested to select the most engaging ones. Every tiny detail that goes into the product is tested on multiple user groups using A/B testing. Seemingly harmless notification, the icon to indicate that other person is typing over chat etc. all are cues to grab your attention.

These products are designed to provide you with a quick fix when you feel bored, sad, anxious, nervous etc. How many times in a day do you open one of the social media apps? Is phone first thing you check after waking up and last before you go to sleep?

Information Bubble

We are more connected with others but more polarized today than ever before. We all live in an information bubble that is created around us via recommendation engines of the products that we use.

How many times do you search a specific content to watch vs how many times do you view a recommended content? How much control do you exercise on your social media feed? Do you follow people or groups whose ideas are not in line with yours?

Have you ever wondered why someone close to you is blind to the logic when it comes to any political or religious opinion? It is because all of us are living in our information bubble. The social media platform and the recommendation engines cement the boundary of this bubble. This problem is accentuated by the fact that people follow information sources, influencers, groups, video channels etc., that reinforce their beliefs or their version of the truth.

These bubbles do not represent physical proximity. You might be getting completely different recommendations and information from a person sitting right next to you. The recommendation engines are finely tuned to show content based on your inclination and keep you engaged on the platform.

You must have heard about the flat-earth society. It’s a group of people who believe that earth is flat despite the scientific evidence proving otherwise. Need I say more?

Misinformation

Another major problem is an unchecked spread of misinformation through social media.

According to one study, “Fake news travels 6 times faster than real news on social media”. It is alarming especially when we are battling a global pandemic. Researchers at CMU found over 100 false narratives involving corona virus by accounts controlled by Bots.

An example shown in The Social Dilemma was the pizzagate incident, where a piece of fake news about human trafficking from the basement of a specific pizza place resulted in a man showing up to that place with a gun to rescue people. It was later found that the pizza place did not even have a basement.

A few products have come up with steps to curb the spread of fake news or flag false information. WhatsApp, for example, limits message forwarding to only 5 chats. Twitter has fact-check to warn users about potentially false information. However, these measures are not proving enough.

Social media addiction, information bubble, and misinformation have far-reaching consequences. These impact us individually and as a society. It is not enough for you to distance yourself from these platforms and think that will solve the problem.

Today social media has become a tool in the hands of rich and powerful to alter the opinion of the masses. Propagandists find it far easier to manipulate the opinion of the target population on the critical issues for their benefits. It has a far-reaching impact on election results, policy decisions, global health etc.

The world we live in today is more divided than ever before about the issues like immigration, vaccination, unemployment, etc. The recommendation engines further act as a catalyst in polarizing society on these issues.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, 64% of all the extremist group joins were due to recommendation system employed by social media platforms.

As social platforms increasingly integrate with our lives, research shows a wide range of adverse effects on our mental health, self-image, and happiness. A study published by Honest Data shows that 30% of the surveyed 2000 Americans feel anxious if they don’t check social media platform for a couple of hours (source). This paper by Allcott et al. shows that a month away from social media platforms can lead to a significant improvement in emotional well-being and reduction in political polarization.

Arguably the most impacted ones are the kids who are born in the world of social media. Their idea of beauty and happiness revolves around the false image portrayed by social media. These kids compare their real-life with the fabricated virtual life of others on social media. Their self-esteem is tied to the number of followers, likes, and comments that they get. Many employees and executives, who are creators of social media platforms, don’t allow their kids to use social media. They are acutely aware of the adverse impact it has on the kids.

Is it all bad?

There are many positive stories of social media. Hundreds of thousands of people have searched employment opportunities using social media, house hunting using FB groups is a norm now, many people have found their significant other through social media, abundant educational resources are available to anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection. People from different walks of life have come together on social media for many good causes. It has even aided in starting people’s movement in many countries. The positive stories and the positive impact cannot be undermined or ignored. However, we must ensure that negatives do not overshadow positives.

“It’s simultaneous utopia and dystopia.”
-Tristan Harris (The Social Dilemma)

It is unfair to pin the blame solely on creators or solely on the users for the consequences of new technology. Both groups need to do their part.

Action for Product Creators

Before building any product or feature, start the discussion about its impact on society. You need to be the voice that brings up the consequences of the change. Anticipate and exaggerate the impact of the change on all the groups of the society/users.

Learn both the success stories and the consequences from the existing platforms. Can you design an A/B test to study not only the success metrics but the broader impact of the feature as well?

Can you determine the threshold time for the product usage and signal users to stop? YouTube has one such feature where it indicates users when they have been continually watching videos for a while. Similarly, there should be more checks to break the addiction of the users.

Hyper-personalization can make product or information more relevant to the users, but it can also create an information bubble. Can recommendation engines be tweaked to show an alternate view of the topic?

Action for Product Users

Turn off notifications or only keep the required ones. You don’t want to be distracted by every little event happening out there. Notifications are a gentle nudge to the users to use the product. It’s the first step in the cycle to keep you engaged for a longer period. Stop it at the very beginning and turn it off.

There are many alternate products to the existing ones that don’t track you over the internet and do not sell your data to third parties. One such free to use search engine is DuckDuckGo. You can also install browser plugins that stop third party websites from collecting your data.

A way to fight misinformation is to follow trusted publications. There are many websites that do a fact check and debunk many false stories. You can follow those sources to get the right information. Do not believe a sensational story unless it comes from a trusted source.

Following people with opposing views can help you get out of the information bubble and understand both the sides of an argument. Finally, talk about these issues, make others around you aware of the problem.

Conclusion

Social media platforms are under more scrutiny than others because they impact billions of people. However, product managers, designers, and engineers across all the industries should consciously work to ensure that their platform does not become evil. The gaming industry needs to ensure that games do not adversely impact the mental health of the players. The financial industry needs to ensure that their algorithms don’t discriminate against any group in the society based on race, sexual orientation, gender etc.

The role of policymakers is also significant in fighting the negative consequences of social media. We need concrete regulation and laws around the highlighted issues.

The product dilemma is the choice of making a product more engaging and profitable vs curbing the consequences in the process of doing so.

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