Marc Andreessen famously said that software is eating the world. That was a statement about economics. Now I believe that social media is swallowing our brains, which is a much broader statement about human behavior.
The precipitating event for this observation is Salesforce’s announcement that it would acquire Slack for $27.7 billion. According to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, “This is a match made in heaven. Together, Salesforce and Slack will shape the future of enterprise software and transform the way everyone works in the all-digital, work-from-anywhere world.”
Hacking our attention with social media
All significant social network sites have converged on a single interaction model, with minor variations. That model tends to include:
- Short text posts.
- Posts that can also include photos, videos, or links.
- Profiles that identify who is posting.
- The ability to follow individuals and their posts.
- Likes, favorites, or similar low-effort endorsements of those posts.
- Threads of comments on those posts.
- Hashtags so you can follow topics.
- Direct messaging between individuals.
- Algorithms that surface posts with the most interaction.
- Cloud-based architecture that enables apps adapted for all our devices — computers, tablets, phones, and potentially anything else connected.
- Notifications to keep reminding you to come back and see what’s happening.
- The endless scroll of content, so that there is no natural stopping point. Stories end. Newsfeeds never do.
This is Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, Parler, WeChat, QQ, TikTok, LinkedIn, Snapchat. Oh sure, there are significant variations in whether they focus on videos, pictures, or words, whether the posts persist or disappear, whether they require real identities, and how they enable various reactions, but it is all basically the same experience in slightly different containers.
The reason these apps have converged is that the interaction model they all share is similarly addictive. We all know things are happening on our favorite social media sites. We don’t want to miss out. We want to contribute and show our wit or our love. We want to see what posts are going viral; the conditions that enable virality are a crucial part of the addictiveness of such sites. They are creations perfectly engineered to absorb our attention, refine it, channel it, and reflect it back to us in ways that make us continue to contribute.
The constantly updated nature of these sites requires our attention because if we step away for a minute, an hour, a week, we might miss something. What if Sarah posted a picture of her new baby? What if Taylor Swift dropped a new track with Beyonce? What if Donald Trump insulted someone or lied about something and we missed it?
Ostensibly, we aren’t checking these sites at work because we’re supposed to be working. At work we used to interact in person, on the phone, and on email. But tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams have duplicated the social media environment — and its addictiveness — in the workplace. Salesforce’s own entry, Chatter, clearly wasn’t catching on well enough, while Microsoft’s Teams was — so Salesforce needed to buy Slack to catch up.
Slack and its workforce competitors have the potential to be in front of you every moment of the workday (and if you let them, outside the workday in every other moment of your time as well). They are designed to suck you into work and make it a social experience similar to what you get on Facebook or Twitter. And they are working — which is why Salesforce was willing to pay $27+ billion to own a piece of this attention vortex.
Can you concentrate for a minute?
Honest to fucking God, can you?
Now, not only are you getting pinged on your phone for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, but you’re also being pinged for Slack. Work needed tools to compete with play, so it copied what play looks like. Slack wants you to know that Jeremy asked for you to review his document, that Alison has a new idea about your plan to remake the sales process, and that the CEO wants you to think carefully about the new mission statement. And a hundred other “happenings,” in real time.
Yes, this enables collaboration to run more smoothly and, at least potentially, at your own pace. But it is also perpetuates the interruption culture. Interruptions used to happen because we worked in cubes without doorways where anyone could swing by on a moment’s notice. Now that we’re not in those cubes any more, Slack and its competitors mean we can interrupt people virtually.
The result is the same — an inability to concentrate. And it’s exacerbated by the explosion in Zoom calls, which have swallowed up at least as much time as meetings used to.
When when I ask you if you can concentrate for a minute, that’s not a rhetorical question. Can you? Because, frankly, you’re not going to get much done unless you put in a half an hour or two hours or four hours a day for a week on the tough problems. You think those folks at Moderna made a coronavirus vaccine in Zoom meetings all day and ricocheting from one Slack message to another? Somebody had to concentrate hard to make that happen. Somebody has to concentrate hard for anything worthwhile to happen.
Original thought demands concentration. Anticipating future scenarios requires concentration. Math requires concentration. Art — including advertising — requires concentration. Love requires concentration. Research requires concentration. Flow requires concentration. No brilliant, productive, original, excellent creator or thinker ever succeeded without concentration.
You’d better figure out a way to concentrate — to block out Slack and all the rest of the social networking experiences for a time. Because they’re engineered to suck you in. You don’t want to look back on your day — or your whole lifetime — and say “where did the time go?”