In order to survive in the modern era, companies must grasp a strong understanding of psychology, or at least of the type of pseudo-psychology that Edward Bernays, immortalized as the father of PR, made widely available to marketers and advertisers. Bernays was an Austrian American who wove the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and ultimately asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Historically companies have leveraged a number of psychological devices and theories to generate desire within their target demographics and audiences in order to sell more. Advertising seeks to simultaneously engender strong positive feelings about a product or company while simultaneously leaving the audience feeling emptier for not owning the advertised product. The ability to pull this off is intensely powerful, and yet not as powerful as the ability to affect this reaction within the target demographic, autonomously, spontaneously.

This is the accomplishment of the new realm of mobile technologies and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In effect, their breakthrough in psycho-marketing is the ability to make their product habit-forming, even addictive. On Merriam Webster addiction is defined as: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (or we could say product) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. Addiction is the new marketing goal precisely because its inherently dangerous, cyclical nature is exactly what embodies both the need and the fulfillment- all encapsulated in one.

Compulsion and habit are the key words here. Marketers and advertisers drool when they see those words, because they are truly the Holy Grail of advertising. If they can create a condition in their target audience where the deprivation of the product creates a state near-pain for the user/consumer, they are guaranteed a captive customer, possibly for life.

This is precisely what Nir Eyal describes in his TechCrunch article, “The Billion Dollar Mind Trick.”  Eyal outlines a couple of critical concepts; namely “internal triggers” and “desire engines,”

“When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an ‘internal trigger.’ Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.”

As Eyal points out, “We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions.” He enumerates the current approach to create internal triggers, labeling it the manufacturing of desires.”

  • “Addictive technology creates “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or any other external stimuli.  It becomes a user’s own intrinsic desire.”
  • Creating internal triggers comes from mastering the “desire engine” and its four components: trigger, action, variable reward, and commitment.”

The “desire engine” Eyal refers to is merely a phrase that describes the pre-determined “series of experiences designed to create habits…the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.” All of this is to say that, increasingly, and especially when it comes to mobile consumer technologies and apps, companies increasingly find that their economic and social value is a function of the strength of the habits they create within their user/customer base.

Interesting, yes, but perhaps not entirely new. Michel Foucault (yes, I know I talk about him a lot here, but his work is endlessly relevant to the types of communications discussions we constantly engage in nowadays) discussed this same concept in his investigation of the concept of “technologies of the self,” whereby his objective was:

 “to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific ‘truth games’ related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Yet the concept dates back to the Greeks, “constituted in Greek as epimelesthai sautou, ‘to take care of yourself’ ‘the concern with self,’ ‘to be concerned, to take care of yourself.’

Foucault posited that there were four main “technologies:”

“(I) technologies of production, (2) technologies of sign systems, (3) technologies of power, and (4) technologies of the self” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Clearly in this case what we’re focusing on is the technology of the self, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that the bulk of apps available to us all on our mobile devices these days are not, in some way, designed to fulfill some narcissistic desire to know ourselves better. Whether it’s for fitness (calorie counters, pedometers, diet analyses, jogging analyses) or for social edification (how many people who you know are around you, how many “friends” do you have [Facebook], what are you doing right now [Twitter], how often do you visit a place [FourSquare or Yelp]) many of these tools are intended to display a mirror image of ourselves and project it onto a social web and out to others. (Hell, iPhones now include a standard photo feature that allows you to use the phone as a literal mirror by using the front-end camera as you stare into it.) But they are also intended to help us transform ourselves and make ourselves happier by making us skinnier, healthier, more social, more aware, more productive, etc.

The importance of this is that we have been fooled into thinking we are using these apps to learn more about ourselves, but the social sharing functionality proves that this is performative- we wouldn’t be doing it repeatedly unless there was a performance aspect built-in, an audience waiting to view and comment on the information, providing continuous gratification. In other words, learning more about ourselves, then amplifying that knowledge out to an audience has become habit-forming. We have become addicted to the performance of ourselves.

 “These four types of technologies hardly ever function separately, although each one of them is associated with a certain type of domination. Each implies certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

In this case, though Foucault was often very careful in his diction and a master of semiotics, what if we replace the word “attitudes” with “habits?” After all, Foucault is referring to these technologies of self as dominating, as techniques which train and modify individuals, and a habit formed is demonstrably a tangible and acquired modification of human behavior. Later he continues to elaborate and speaks of “individual domination,”

”I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself, in the technology of self.”

I know quite a few people who would willingly and openly admit to the individual act of domination upon themselves that they perform on a compulsive basis by updating their Twitter feeds, updating the status on their Facebook accounts, uploading their latest photos to Instagram, and checking in on FourSquare. There is a reason that Googling “Is technology the new opiate of the masses?” garners page upon page of thoughtfully written and panicky editorials and blog posts. This is a newly acknowledged and little resisted truth of our times- we are willing slaves to the ongoing performance of our selves.

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