Why is Facebook so addictive?

Interactive designers use many tricks -- change your status update recently? -- to persuade us to do their bidding.

Published August 7, 2008 5:15PM (EDT)

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According to Facebook, today is B.J. Fogg's birthday. I know that because he, like millions of other people -- many of whom, like me, are online privacy freaks -- blithely entered this and many other highly personal details about his life when we joined the service.

Unlike most of us, though, it's his job to figure out how they got us to do it.

Fogg is director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, an independent research center that explores a discipline he invented, called "captology." Captology stands for Computers As Persuasive Technology, and it looks at how certain technologies intentionally persuade us to do their bidding.

Fogg's research examines how product designers can methodically use persuasive techniques in everything from ATMs to shareware.

One example of persuasive technology is the "nag screen" that's built into shareware programs to persuade slacker users to pay up. Another is the computerized Baby Think It Over doll, which tells you when your "baby" needs to be fed, and changed, and bathed, and played with -- clearly designed as a propaganda tool in the fight against teen pregnancy.

If you visit a video arcade or a casino, you're surrounded by captology. The ringing, squawking, flashing screens that pitch such a fit as you walk by actually have a name. They're called "attract mode," and their sole purpose is to make you stop and drop the first of many quarters into their slots.

And remember the Tamagotchi "digital pets" from the 1990s? Talk about persuasive -- I still shudder to recall the U.S. News and World Report story that I read at the height of the Tamagotchi craze: One father of a couple of fanatics had to return a puppy to the pet store because his daughters preferred to "feed" their Tamagotchis.

As more of the world hooks up with the Internet, the social network phenomenon provides some of the most powerful present-day examples of technological persuasion. According to Fogg's research, for example, Facebook is the most persuasive interactive technology on the planet.

"Facebook has changed more people's behavior, more dramatically and faster, than anything that has come before it," he said. With millions of people "ritualistically" involved with their Facebook accounts every day, he and his students are now trying to deconstruct precisely how it does its voodoo so well -- from its subtle, yet incessant siren song of inviting and finding friends, to the triggers that keep you coming back, as many people do, several times a day.

The pinnacle of persuasion in the "trigger" category, according to Fogg, is the individual status updates that Facebook users type in at random times. Those who don't change very often get a subtle interface cue from Facebook saying, "What are you doing right now?"

At the moment, for example, mine says, "Denise wants an iPod touch. It's a vague, formless desire, unsupported by good reviews. But she wants it nonetheless." I read my friends' updates at least once a day, and often change mine every day as well.

"Status updates are amazing," Fogg said. "They are pellets that keep popping out for the pigeons -- tremendously effective at keeping you coming back."

The lab's first foray into understanding "the psychology of Facebook," as Fogg puts it, was from the inside: he and a colleague taught a course in designing Facebook applications.

"The first class was crazy," he said. "It was like watching a field of poppies grow -- in six weeks, the students' applications collectively got 16 million installations. Then it was 25 million. We stopped keeping track."

But as anyone knows who has added or removed a gazillion Facebook apps for various reasons, persuasion is not a permanent process.

"Some of the most viral apps from our class had a clear life cycle," said Fogg. "Once the novelty wore off, they weren't so fun anymore. So students would create another app. Learning to transfer users from a dying app to a rising app became a skill. We want to learn more about this, so we're starting to look at the psychology of persuasive designs and what metrics you can use to measure it. I want to be able to teach how to use psychology to make good decisions about what you want to persuade people to do, measure what's working, and be able to iterate quickly based on how they respond."

Fogg said he recently had lunch with an exec from Rock You, the largest ad network on Facebook. "He took three calls from the office, just during lunch, about the metrics that day," said Fogg. "He told me that they change their ads on a daily basis" based on how people respond in real time.

Any kind of persuasive technique can be used for good or for evil, and no matter what others may do with it, Fogg is trying to use his captological powers for good. Last year, he started teaching a course he calls Peace Innovation. The core idea is to try to "invent peace" through persuasive technology.

"What we're doing is identifying antecedents to peace -- like empathy and tolerance -- that most people would agree need to be present in a peaceful society, then we're designing measurable persuasive techniques to achieve them," said Fogg. "It's a new way of looking at the problem."

One class project, for example, imitated the Free Rice site, a game where, for each word the player gets right, Free Rice donates 20 grains of rice through the U.N. World Food Program.

"Our surveys of users before and after showed that people's empathy and tolerance levels changed measurably," he said. "People who answered four questions in the game felt different from people who didn't answer the questions." They were surprised to find that the changes were still true a week later.

"We're still at the very beginning of this, so we don't have hard data yet," said Fogg. "It's a challenge to learn how to measure changes in empathy and tolerance. So we challenged each student to create one simple measurement tool by the end of class. That's a pretty good step to future work."

By Denise Caruso

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