August 5, 2022

From Wordle to Metaverse, apps are becoming less addictive

How Facebook Became a Business worth 1 trillion dollars at some point last year? Not only fulfilling its mission to “connect people”, but keeping them hooked to the site, sometimes for straight hours.

Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube, and Twitter Inc. have spent years perfecting the art of creating addictive products, whether through social affirmation of “I’s likes”, the allure of an endless news feed or the YouTube-like hits your dopamine receptors each time, it recommends a new video.

Guillaume Chaslot, an engineer who left Google in 2013 after helping to design YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, remembers being told to program it to encourage people to spend more time on the site. “When you optimize time spent, you optimize dependency,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t even realize it.”

But now, after several years of wide game Against Big Tech platforms for their security, more and more consumer Internet services seem to ignore the pressure to be “tacky,” in Silicon Valley parlance, or to reward attention-seeking behaviors. It’s a promising trend.

Some of these services are taking off with consumers.

BeReal is a social application developed in France where all users are invited to post a photo of themselves and their surroundings at a randomly chosen time each day. Instead of perfectly angled selfies on the beach, you get double chins, laptop keyboards and crowds of bus commuters – in other words, the mundane moments of everyday life. As of May 2022, BeReal has been downloaded over 10 million times and is constantly growing among teenagers and students in the US, UK and France, according to app analytics firm data.ai.

There are no beautification filters and BeReal discourages staged photos. “It doesn’t show fake lives like some Instagram influencers out there,” says Alice, a 15-year-old in London who started using BeReal in April after a friend recommended it.

Perhaps more importantly, BeReal isn’t as addictive as Instagram. You really only need to look at the app once a day when a flood of new photos are added. I’ve been using BeReal for several months and find it hard to ignore the app’s two minute alerts for everyone to post a picture, but I’m not addicted on BeReal in the same way that I am forced to check Twitter several times during the day.

The daily routine is also what motivated tens of millions of people to play Wordle, the hit puzzle game now owned by New York Times Co. that updates daily and encourages players to share yellow and green emoticons of their results.

Instead of creating a constant itch to check 24/7, BeReal and Wordle create anticipation. Instead of presenting content, the apps encourage a unique, ephemeral daily practice that connects users with others.

Both web services could be modes, of course. Do you remember the Dispo, YikYak and Peach apps? If not, it’s because social media and internet platforms are a volatile business, filled with extinctions that might not attract consumers in the long run.

But the current success of Wordle and BeReal is also accompanied by a broader cultural change: an increased awareness among consumers, and especially teenagers and 20-year-olds, of the psychological risks of spending a lot of time on social networks. This knowledge has compelled Generation Z to pioneer finsta accounts on Instagram to post more private and authentic photos for their close friends, or to start trends like #filterdrop.

Ironically, perhaps the biggest company abandoning the dopamine model is Facebook itself.