I recently took a month-long complete social media hiatus. Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and the plethora of other social apps completely took over my life, so I unplugged to rid myself of it and reset.

During that month I also read Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. What originally began as an interest in building better products for my work at a SaaS startup quickly turned personal.

I completed it with mixed emotions. No, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll build the next Snapchat, but what it does do is lay out how products like Facebook and Pinterest reel you in, latch themselves to you, and keep you coming back. I’m grateful for the self-awareness I gained through reading it, but anxious about its implications for the future, especially as AR and VR approach mainstream consumer adaptation.

Key ideas around habit-forming products

“…habit-forming companies link their services to the users’ daily routines and emotions.”

Hooked begins with a high level discussion about how companies create habits in their users. The most powerful takeaway from these early sections was that successful products link themselves to users’ emotions.

“Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.”

When reading I couldn’t help think about myself. I knew the itch, the need to take out my phone every two minutes and refresh, what was I feeling that made me need to do that?

Eyal went on to cite studies about depressive internet behavior that showed people with depressive symptoms had higher email, gaming, and chat usage. These results showed that people are “turning to technology to lift their mood.” I started to get answers to my question of what made me feel the need to keep refreshing. At its core was a need for stimulation, and any lack thereof produced anxiety that needed to be quenched with a hit of any sort of digital content. Social media, podcasts, videos, articles, all satiated the need.

Digging deeper, Eyal said products “lay claim to a particular feeling” and associate themselves as the solution of that problem. An early case study of a woman named Yin’s use of Instagram revealed she whipped out her phone to capture a moment because she was afraid it would be gone forever if she didn’t get it.

I was anxious reading through the meat of the book detailing how this is done. A four step model involving a Trigger, Action, Variable Reward, and Investment shows you how other companies do it and how you can build it into your product as well. I felt a lack of control over my own habits.

The model is well thought-out and backed up by many case studies and examples throughout the book. Professionally, I think there are a ton of useful exercises and ways to think about building products.

But I agree with Eyal when he says you need to ask the moral questions first, then look deeper into acting on some of his findings.

The morality of habit-forming products

Many reviews of this book knock it because they feel it glosses over the moral implications of what Eyal is presenting. I actually disagree, and feel he spoke at length about this issue and presented ways to make sure you are approaching building products with the right mindset.

Not only are the moral hazards discussed before he dives into the model, but an entire chapter at the end of the book is dedicated to it. A Manipulation Matrix is presented as a guide to help creators find out where their product and its purpose lies. Even though I was anxious of the implications throughout this book, I think Eyal correctly tackled this topic. I think the problem many reviewers struggled with is if this should’ve been shared in the first place, and in my opinion the answer is absolutely. By revealing the process, we can now be aware of it.

Paul Graham is quoted near the end of the book saying users haven’t developed societal “antibodies to addictive new things.” But him and Eyal both agree the burden lies with the user to fend for themselves.

“Unless we want to be canaries in the coal mine of each new addiction—the people whose sad example becomes a lesson to future generations—we’ll have to figure out for ourselves what to avoid and how.” – Paul Graham

Eyal ends the section with a warning for users and thought-provoking question for makers.

“For now, users must learn to assess these yet-unknown consequences for themselves, while creators will have to live with the moral repercussions of how they spend their professional lives.”

Awareness and moving forward

Hooked gave me a deep look into my personal relationship with technology and an awareness of my habits. I’m very appreciative of this and the introspection it caused.

For most books to be truly useful you must put time into them and act on their teachings, as is the case for product makers here. But while not all books are worth their salt if you don’t follow through, Hooked is an exception. It’s a study in technology interaction, habits, and psychology applicable to anyone with a smartphone.

Today’s world of continuous stimulation has taken hold of our attention. This book opens the door to a much larger, and more serious discussion about our habits, our ability to think critically and autonomously, and our connection with each other. It’s a larger discussion tackled by many people.

Two great examples of this conversation are Craig Mod’s piece How I Got My Attention Back and Seth Godin’s blog post that incidentally came out this morning.

Writing a thinkpiece on taking a break from social media or unplugging has become yet another victim of internet meme’s and sarcasm. While I see the humor in it (I mean who cares about my month off social media right?), I think this is a topic that needs deeper discussion and thought. Most solutions presented thus far are about completely shutting off. It was eye-opening for me when I did, and I unabashedly promote everyone taking an extended break from social media.

Hooked is a relevant read for anyone with a smartphone. It’s alarming, fascinating, and informative. Give it a read, and let me know what you think.

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January 16, 2017

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