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The Pressure to be popular is purely for profit

While re-organizing my old files – think: more than 80,000 original photos, 10,000 videos and countless screenshots captured since 2011 – I stumbled upon a graphic I had used while promoting my documentary The Illusionists. Its message read, simply: “The pressure to be perfect is purely for profit”. Its background image is a giant billboard ad that I had photographed in the Paris subway: it shows a thin, attractive young woman in a bikini, airbrushed to perfection. Sitting before the ad is a young woman speaking on the phone. I thought the image perfectly captured the immense pressures women have been facing vis-à-vis unattainable beauty ideals. The photo ultimately became the poster of my film.

Pressure to be perfect The Illusionists

When I came across this image again, a couple of weeks ago, I thought: what message could be the slogan of my new film The Realists? What message defines our era? The answer came quickly: “the pressure to be popular is purely for profit.”

What do you mean, you may ask? Well, it seems that people today – across genders, ages and nationalities – share a common desire: to go “viral”, to become influencers, or simply to have their posts and photos accrue as many likes and comments as possible. Being seen, being liked, commanding positive attention on the internet is the ultimate status symbol.

Online popularity as the new status symbol

So what does it mean “The pressure to be popular is purely for profit”? It means that this desire, which is perfectly natural and has been key to our evolution as a species, has become more and more pressing since the rise of social media. Tech platforms are exploiting a natural human impulse… for their own gain. How? The more time people spend online, on Instagram, TikTok or Twitter, the more money these companies make; platforms offer their services for free and make money through advertising. The more eyeballs available to see ads the better.

The age of the chronological feed is long gone. Nowadays, what we see on social media platforms depends on the inner workings of their algorithms, which have been studying our behaviors and have figured out what makes us tick. The ultimate goal of an algorithm is to keep the user looking at the screen for as long as possible, in order to see ads. Nobody – outside of developers working for those platforms – knows how an algorithm works, but there are obvious cues for behaviors that are rewarded. Frequent and consistent posting is one. I know this for a fact.

“Our generation’s crack cocaine”

The only social media platforms I use are Twitter and LinkedIn. I can go for weeks or months “lurking” on them, without posting anything. So, even when I publish something at a time that is considered “optimal” for my time zone and that of most of my followers (who are in the United States), even if I have over 8000 followers, very few people see my posts. Twitter likes it when users post every day, multiple times a day, ideally from its phone app. The difference in visibility is like night and day.

A bona fide influencer – say, someone with over a million followers on Instagram – has an incentive to post every day, to get good “engagement” on their posts, so that advertisers would want to do partnerships with them. Even someone with more low-key ambitions – say, getting their posts seen and shared widely on LinkedIn – may start posting everyday, when they see how the algorithm rewards this behavior. Getting views, likes and comments provides an instant dopamine hit.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff writes:

On the demand side, Facebook’s “likes” were quickly coveted and craved, morphing into a universal reward system or what one young app designer called “our generation’s crack cocaine.” “Likes” became those variably timed dopamine shots, driving users to double down on their bets “every time they shared a photo, web link, or status update. A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation.” In fact, most users craved the reward more than they feared humiliation, and the “Like” button became Facebook’s signature, spreading across the digital universe and actively fusing users in a new kind of mutual dependency expressed in a pastel orgy of giving and receiving reinforcement.

The Desire for More

You may think that this desire to be popular has always been around. Pre-internet, there were always obviously popular kids and cliques in school. What is the harm in that? Well, what is different today is that everything online is quantifiable and quantified. The numbers of followers, likes and comments on posts is always visible and in a preeminent spot.  Artist Ben Grosser – whom I have interviewed for The Realists documentary – spoke about this very issue:

You know capitalism needs constant growth to succeed. And so it’s this intersection of the need to feel valued, combined with the fact that value is quantifiable and measurable… that when you put those together into a metric that says something about who you are and how social you are, and what people think about what you post creates what I would call “the desire for more”. Nobody wants to go around saying “nobody liked me”… “Nobody paid attention to me”. They want to see that people paid attention and they want that number to get larger.

How Big Tech Weaponizes Dopamine

In his video Dopamine Detox, Niklas Christl further explains:

The terrifying reality is that almost every company in our modern society exploits this deeply rooted reward system by putting it on steroids. There are millions of experts specifically designing their products and Internet platforms to release as much dopamine as possible in order to make us come back over and over again. That’s why social media platforms switch from chronological feeds to an algorithm based feed, and that’s why video games have levels and ranking systems to keep us coming back. They give us constant dopamine hits as we jump from one post to the next one and from one level to the next one.

“You’re Only As Good As Your Latest Post”

A while back, I was having a conversation about this very issue with my brilliant friend Debra Bourne. She said something that stayed with me and that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. In the internet age “you’re only as good as your latest post.” Meaning that people who care about being popular online are forced – by the inner workings of the platforms – to keep posting, to constantly upload new content. And if something goes viral one day, the next day or the next week it’s old news. Something new needs to be created in order to grab the attention of the audience. Which ultimately benefits… the hosting platform.

Extremely online Instagram influencers or TikTokers are indirectly promoting these platforms every time they post something… and social media platforms are walled gardens for one key reason: so that algorithms can observe people’s reactions to content and optimize posts to keep users online longer… so that they will see more targeted ads.

Always follow the money.

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