Social dopamine is the opium of today – do we all need a detox?

Like. Retweet. Repeat.

Social media has conditioned us to accept these rituals. We’re addicted to our phones, craving that next little hit of dopamine. The people who created these methods, the names behind the algorithms, have all slowly but surely started to retract their support. Twitter. Google. Facebook. All guilty.

“Whoops,” they coyly say, from their beds made entirely of money. “My bad.”

And amidst the lunacy of SXSW – I got to visit the Westworld Experience, which was ace, by the way – it seems that the ad industry is finally starting to realise that addicting our audiences isn’t, you know, the best way to go about things.

Brian Solis’ Breaking Digital Facades: It's Time to Take Tech Back session was one of the most fascinating talks I went to see at SXSW. Not because the digital analyst’s spiel was stacked with mind-blowing revelations, industry secrets or an AR experience where you could experience the sensory lifecycle of a chocolate bar. Solis’ talk was a triumph because it simply said: stop. Stop giving in to social media. Stop letting likes dictate your life. As he so succinctly put it, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”

Solis’s talk followed a steady reveal of the reality of our addictions, from personal bad habits such as ‘never been more than five yards from our phones’ (even at bed time); to government bodies creating new ways to avoid us accidentally killing ourselves, due to lack of awareness as we walk forever glaring into our phones, unaware of our surroundings; and don’t even get him started on the basic body effects, such as posture or brain laziness.

So as agencies, we need to help our clients and their customers regain control. End-users should be empowered, not boxed in. Too many brands use the dirty tactics popularised by social media, doing whatever they can to snatch our attention, hooking us in and stringing us out, autonomising us, telling us to be grateful for what we’re given.

These tactics aren’t ethical nor sustainable. Their lifecycle will soon change at public opinion’s behest, like Facebook was forced to do when its algorithm received an absolute dress-down a few moons back, as ex-staffers admitted the platform was designed to be addictive.

It’s our job as agencies to help instill real values into the brands we work with. Working together with them to set clear ethical guidelines, to actually explain that what they might be thinking of doing doesn’t actually put the customer first. Because they genuinely might not think it’s immoral – after all, it’s widely practiced, so it must be fine, right?

I have a lot of faith in behavioural science. It helps me understand, as someone running an agency, that there’s an ethical code woven into the services and products that we create and the responsibilities we have to our clients. If we abuse the knowledge and skills we have, if we try and pull a fast one for a quick boost in results, then we’ll just continue to create distrust.

Be on the right side of the line. Don’t just tell consumers to do something. Tell them why they should do something.

Social media has transformed our attention into currency, robbing us of intimate moments, interrupting our day-to-day without question. We shouldn’t encourage this kind of behaviour. Brands should be seamlessly interacting with people in a way that doesn’t intrude, doesn’t take over. Don’t let your work be defined by butting in on people’s valuable time. It has to stop and it will stop.

But we’ve got to pull ourselves out of digital introversion, away from the echo chamber we’ve been hiding in for the past few years. Because it’s dangerous - look what’s happened with the recent election campaigns in the UK and US, with Russian influence swaying opinion via social posts. Not only that, but YouTube’s algorithm was recently outed for pushing people into conspiracy theory rabbit holes. All proper mad, shady stuff. Brian Solis’ SXSW session really hammered this home, labouring the point that this has gone way too far.

People’s values and expectations have been dampened so much by social media, and we can change that.

Yep, we. You. Us. Together, skipping towards connectivity like it’s the pub on a Friday night.

So, my key takeout from SXSW so far: Be individual and treat your customers like individuals too.

Michael Olaye is chief executive officer at Dare and chief technology officer at Inside Ideas Group

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