Social Scroller

Woman looking at social media on her phone in bed at night.

I was supposed to be writing this blog post, but instead I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. I started seeing familiar photo galleries and link previews float past, which meant I was at the end of the new newness, which meant the odds of stumbling across something really exciting had just gone off a cliff, so I clicked over to Twitter and started scrolling there.

Same deal. Then over to Instagram. Then, before checking out of the scroll game to get to actual work, I did a quick pass through Google News, just to make sure there weren’t any active shooter situations happening in my neighborhood and that I hadn’t missed Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory satiro-facist policy proposal soundbite.

Sometimes while I’m scrolling, I’ll ask myself in disgust”What the hell am I doing?” as if I’m watching someone else’s thumb pawing at the iPhone’s smudgy screen. I feel powerless to turn away from the procession of partisan rants, clever baby announcements, links to Semi-Rad posts, cat vids and fail vids (or the ultimate: cat fail vids), selfies, and climbing butt shots.

I finally mustered the courage to put the phone down and turned my focus to this post. I had something else half written already, but decided it was boring and starting writing about my social scrolling addiction instead, mainly because I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Do you find yourself spending inordinate amounts of toilet time because you just can’t stop the scrolling? Or showing up late for a dinner because you got caught in an endless social media loop? Or perhaps you bathed your pupils in that Retina Display glow late into the night, even though you had to be up early the next day? Happens.

Turns out social scrolling isn’t (only) a symptom of a weak will, but a natural urge built into us by millennia of evolutionary programming. According to studies performed on monkeys, information seeking as survival tactic is encouraged by the neurotransmitter dopamine in specific areas of our brains. It makes sense. “Having access to more relevant information – such as knowing where the food is located – allows animals to make better decisions,” writes Chadrick Lane in a 2009 Scientific American article. “Furthermore, having access to such information might give us better control over our environment, thus increasing our chances of survival.”

Other research has suggested that anticipation of a reward is even more stimulating to the brain than the reward itself. Further, according to a New York Times article (which was citing this neuroscience study), unpredictable rewards elicit more potent responses in our brain chemistry because, “Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.”

It’s no coincidence that the most popular social media platforms are those that supply an unending and unpredictable stream of content, plus enticing bleeps and bings and badges to alert us of some exciting new comment or like or piece of information that might, for all we know, be changing our lives right now and we didn’t even know it!!

Come to think of it, this endless seeking behavior that’s proved so valuable in the human organism’s quest for survival probably also plays a role in our constant striving, our dissatisfaction with things as they (often predictably) are. Social media today is shaped by and for the mechanism of human motivation, to push all the right buttons that keep us clicking “like.” Social media has evolved into a mirror of the conscious mind. Both build an elaborate world of desire and fear that seems so real, yet ultimately proves illusory.

As Bernard Jaffe says in I Heart Huckabees, “everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.” If you truly understand and believe this, neither social scrolling nor mental striving will have anything left to offer. But that’s a lofty goal. In the meantime, I’ll think check my Twitter feed; maybe there’s a link to an article that will help make sense of things…

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Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

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