I am wary of people who talk about building online communities, social apps, and related services, in an “addictive” or “habit-forming” way, as if these are respectable goals. Speaking for my own personal responsibility, I am not comfortable with it.
If you do a Google search and read about addiction, terms related to it and the stages of it, you might be reminded of what some people have written about how you should build your communities and get people to stay. I find that a little frightening.
You can’t use these words and then feign innocence or say it was just a catchphrase to reel people in. Those who have seen the damage of addiction know otherwise.
I’m sure some will take this as me being overly sensitive or semantic, but addiction is not something to toy with. It might seem mundane when talking about an online community, but addiction to mundane things can absolutely harm or ruin someone’s life. If you don’t believe me, take a look at TLC’s My Strange Addiction. I am not a fan of the show because I feel that it exploits vulnerable people. However, if it does anything positive at all, it at least brings attention to the fact that addiction takes many forms – it isn’t just about drugs, smoking and alcohol.
Consider porn addiction, which actor Terry Crews (who I love) recently spoke out about in a series of videos on his Facebook page. If you are addicted to porn, you are almost certainly behind a computer screen or a mobile device, making it a subset of internet addiction. To believe that our communities and social apps would not have the potential to damage someone’s life in this way is incredibly shortsighted.
While I am not taking the direct responsibility away from the person who has the addiction, I also don’t place sole responsibility with them. Enablers and people who specifically try to trigger this sort of behavior are also to blame. With talk of social science, manipulating human behavior and tapping into fears and insecurities, we should also share a very deep level of accountability.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to not have been exposed to much addiction. No illegal addictions at all. The biggest example I have is my grandfather, who died more than a decade ago. He smoked for 60 years – from age 8 to 68. He just could never quit. He couldn’t quit for his grandchildren. He couldn’t quit for himself. He couldn’t quit. He had formed a habit, alright. The type of habit that some community folks talk about trying to create, so deeply ingrained that he could never shake it.
He only quit when he couldn’t taste any longer. He couldn’t taste food, cigarettes, anything. For the amount of time he smoked, he actually lived quite long, with a decent standard of life. But to watch him deteriorate, to watch him struggle with addiction, that will always stay with me. He had his issues, like we all do, but he survived a lot (a broken home, a war, being shot while working as a department store security guard), worked for most of his life and supported his family. He died at 70, which is old, but not old enough.
I suspect that one response to this article might be to point out how people say they are “addicted” to something when they actually just enjoy it. They might say they are addicted to golf or that they are binge-watching a TV show. While some may try to reclaim the word “addiction” as a positive, these aren’t really addictions. They are just expressing how much they like something and are probably joking. That’s fine. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Instead, I am speaking to our profession and our intent when we build community. Are we operating in the best interests of those we serve? Or are we simply trying to increase activity metrics and time spent on the page, at any cost to those within our community?
There is a fine line between a good call-to-action, ascetically pleasing design and a robust notifications system, and actively seeking to make your community addictive and habit-forming. I just think we might want to be more careful about the words we choose when we describe our ideal community strategies.
The first definition that Merriam-Webster offers for addiction is: “a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble).” For habit-forming: “causing a strong need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something.”
When I started my first online community, it wasn’t so that people would have “a strong need to regularly” visit my community. That’s not why I do it. And it’s not why I’ll ever do it. My goal in life isn’t to dominate the lives of my community members. I want them to be happy, successful people and, at our very best as an industry, that is what we help them become.
But we also have the potential to be something far worse. Especially when that is our actual aim, and the words that we use reflect such an intent.