The infinite hypnosis of the infinite scroll

Digi-addiction: Screen-time has been affected greatly by this feature   | Photo Credit: Imaging: M. Arivarasu

It hit me at the middle of my workday. After a three-hour marathon of trying to meet a deadline, I took a break from my laptop screen and walked over to the water cooler — but when I reached there, I realised that I was still screenbound.

This was not the first time I was going from one screen to another. And I am not the first person to use my mobile less for ‘real’ communication and more for endless consumption. I had just scrolled past at least 30 posts alternating between news, outrage, meme, and dog videos — but I could not recall any in particular. One chunk of content blurred into the next, aided by the fog in my brain.

I had to snap out of the hypnotism of infinite scroll.

The overload

According to Reuters Institute’s 2019 ‘India Digital News Report’, “India is emerging as an overwhelmingly mobile-first, and for many mobile-only, media market for internet use broadly, and for online news use specifically”. They found that of their respondents, 68% identify smartphones as their main device for online news, with 31% saying they only use mobile devices to access online news. “Other social media widely used for news include Instagram (26%), Twitter (18%), and Facebook Messenger (16%).”

Despite being in the industry, it isn’t my organisation’s news app that I used to read from, but articles that came to my feed on Twitter. This will seem like an overwritten tale, but there was a time when the first 40 minutes of my day consisted solely of scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and sharing scanned articles through the direct share button, without exiting the primary apps. I didn’t need to slow down with a newspaper (or its native app for that matter).

There was no reason to look up and look out into the real world either. Sometimes, sucked as I was into the infinitely pouring Magic Treacle Jug of content that I could flick with my thumb, I’d have the most bizarre thoughts: if a crime were to take place on this metro train car, and the suspects are the persons right opposite me, would I be able to help the police with details for a sketch? The infinite scroll had me. It grabbed my eyeballs and didn’t let me look up and around.


“What we are seeing today is just a result of how most tech platforms are making their revenue. Of course, the design incentives are to maximise the amount of time the user spends on the platform, but they are also [to increase engagement] for targeted advertisements. They generate more data on you, so that they can get you to spend more time on their platforms, and because you spend more time there, you give them more data — it is a vicious cycle,” says Gurshabad Grover, research manager at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru. “As the Free Software Foundation has been putting it for years, we are not the users, we are the used. We are not paying for these services; we are the commodity. This is the attention economy we live in now.”

This wasn’t just on social media. Initially hailed as a revolutionary element of UI design, the infinite scroll quickly became dangerous, making the millions who thumbed along, susceptible to addictive behaviours and patterns.

In his 2017 book Irresistible, Adam Alter, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, talks about people slipping into behavioural addictions like online shopping. One example mentioned in the book talks about an “accomplished” woman who had accumulated $80,000 in debt.

It doesn’t take longer than a minute to discover what aids this. Go to a fast fashion site like Asos or H&M and accessory sites like Daily Objects. Select a category, say, of mobile phone cases, and watch the never-ending options unravel as you keep pushing your trackpad up and your screen down. You could have found a case you like, but you don’t stop: perhaps there is another one that is a little better, let us scroll more, just in case.

The infinite scroll is easy navigability in terms of reducing the number of taps or clicks, but it is infinitely debilitating in how it results in decision fatigue, feelings of being frequently overwhelmed, and an overall waste of time.

Sophisticated stream

This is a “dark pattern”. The term, first coined in 2010 by UX designer Harry Brignull, underpins the deceptiveness of certain UI/UX designs in exploiting human psychology. The infinite scroll — whose tangible equivalent is facing a waterfall all day — is possibly the simplest dark pattern.

Features like ‘customers also bought’ on e-commerce sites, or ‘people you may know’ on Facebook are all subsets of the infinite scroll, getting you to invest time and reveal preferences and instincts that you wouldn’t otherwise want to.

“Transactional apps have understood that scrolling is not enough,” says Arjun Arunkumar, UX design lead at Swiggy. “They want users to stop and make a decision, and therefore started [avenues of] discovery,” he says. This is a more sophisticated path towards infinite scrolling in that, the platforms let you personalise how you want to stay glued to them. Therefore, allowing food and restaurant aggregator apps to access my location, means that I’ve let them give me hundreds of options based on distance to where I am.

“This builds up perception of massive choice,” he says, adding that the user will feel like everything that they need can be found on a particular app which does this personalisation well. “The premise is to piggyback on user behaviour. It is a known fact that people engage with scroll, and we build widgets for decisions around this,” Arjun adds.

The scroll on non-commerce apps (like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) is evolving too. The newsfeed now consists of not only direct updates from the people I’m following, but of other things they’ve commented on or liked too. More intrusively, Twitter also throws into my newsfeed updates from people who are followed by those I follow.

Arjun looks at this phenomenon positively: “People benefit a lot, you get massive reach [on your posts]. Many people are thankful for posts [getting amplified] on LinkedIn. It helps during tough [job-hunt] times.”

The problem is when data from these algorithms are used to dictate creation. Take Netflix’s recommendation engine, for instance. Gurshabad notes that they “take pride in” it, and “it is these very user behaviour statistics that help them make new shows.”

This was obvious in some Netflix original movies my account recommended to me after a Sunday of Hugh Grant rom-coms. The actors were unknown, but the tropes were so templated that it was comical. Yet, I continued to watch, ignoring legendary auteurs and giving into algorithm-driven screenplays — it gave me exactly what I was subconsciously attuned to expect.

Breaking out

“Even though users are beginning to realise [the dangers of] this, one area that is still lacking is a social movement around it. A lot of these platforms are becoming oligopolies, and therefore they don’t have incentive to change — I say this with hesitance, but even if a social movement starts, it is difficult to make a switch,” says Gurshabad.

For me, stopping this unending hypnosis became necessary as I found myself disconnected with the people and spaces around me. I started with the easiest option. Facebook was low-risk, since it was mostly only filled with wedding and baby updates. Twitter too went off my phone — I assigned a work purpose to it, which was news and article-sharing. What was tough, more so for those who wanted to stay connected to me, was my decision to go off Whatsapp.

“Measure something if you want to change it,” says Gurshabad, when asked for the best hack to stay connected without being subject to hyper-consumption. “All smartphones now have a feature where you can see screen-time. Many users don’t realise the amount of time they are spending, without the data to show for it. Personally, I have seen a lot of people change their habits like this,” he adds.

Walking the talk

It has been about 15 months since I have been Whatsapp-free, and what Gurshabad says is true. My phone memory and the one in my head are GBs lighter (think Whatsapp’s infinite scroll into chat history, where you can keep re-reading conversations, going up, and up, and up), and my screen time automatically went from a 10-hour-per-day average to five.

I found less intrusive chat apps for those with whom I needed to stay in daily touch — the more obscure the app, the less its features to keep us hooked unnecessarily.

I did retain the other trap on my phone, Instagram. The platform, which didn’t even introduce web profiles until two years after it launched, is clear in its mobile-first brief and wouldn’t let me post from a desktop.

In ‘Do Social Network Sites Enhance or Undermine Subjective Well-Being? A Critical Review’, a 2017 study published in Social Issues and Policy Review, the authors say that passively using social media may have negative consequence on subjective well-being, while active usage seems to stimulate “feelings of social connectedness”.

The definitions of active and passive engagements can be subjective. For me, following social media hygiene as noted by The Minimalists duo Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus helped for Instagram.

I trimmed the number of accounts I follow to under a 100. And the contacts who, out of social decorum I can’t unfollow, I muted.

Now, in just a few brief minutes, it tells me, “You’re all caught up”, and I snap back into the real world, notice my desk, leave my phone on it, and head over to fill my bottle at the water cooler.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 8:28:22 AM |

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