If you’ve followed Facebook closely from the beginning (or have watched The Social Network), you’ll be familiar with the role Sean Parker played in the creation of the company. As Facebook’s founding president, he helped fund and guide Mark Zuckerberg as he grew his dorm room startup into a globe-striding behemoth.
These days Parker is the founder of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and, in this capacity, he spoke yesterday at an Axios event on the topic of the fight to cure cancer. But in an extremely candid aside during his interview with Axios co-founder Mark Allen, Parker also reflected on his earlier gig as Facebook svengali.
“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
You might expect fond remembrances of ex-executive boosterism, but instead Parker delivered a blistering critique of the site he helped build, which has since insinuated itself into nearly every aspect of our lives. Here’s his account of the site’s early days and it’s current role, according to Allen:
The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’
And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in awhile, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.
It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.
The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.
So does he regret his role in the rise of social media? Actually, yes.
“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or two billion people and … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker declared.
Joining a chorus of insider criticism
Parker is neither the only tech luminary to grow concerned about the effect of the things he helped build on children’s brains, nor the only industry insider to go public with these and other concerns. In fact, as Business Insider helpfully points out, this is a trend that seems to be gaining momentum.
“Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, has been outspoken in his criticism of how tech companies’ products hijack users’ minds. ‘If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine,’ he wrote in a widely shared Medium post in 2016,” the site’s Rob Price notes.
Meanwhile, “Loren Brichter, the designer who created the slot-machine-like pull-down-to-refresh mechanism now widely used on smartphones, said, ‘I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all,'” Price quotes.
What’s the takeaway for you? Computer scientist, author, and tech commentator Cal Newport, for one is hoping that Parker’s public apostasy might spur more people to rethink how (or even if) they use these sites.
“As Parker left the stage, he joked that Mark Zuckerberg was going to block his Facebook account. Perhaps it’s just wistful thinking on my part, but it seems to me that it’s Zuckerberg who should be worried that more and more people might start carrying out this blocking all on their own,” he commented on his blog.
Do Parker’s comments make you more concerned about your own social media use?