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Sean Parker on Facebook’s Brain Hacking

A Conscientious Objection 

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, was interviewed onstage yesterday at an event held by Axios at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The topic was cancer innovation, but the conversation turned at some point to Parker’s time at Facebook during its early years.

Perhaps emboldened by social media’s recent PR problems, Parker, who told Axios co-founder Mike Allen backstage that he had become a “conscientious objector on social media,” was unusually candid.

Here are some of his remarks (as reported this morning by 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 a while, 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.”

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.


(Hat tip to Pawel and Nwokedi)

38 thoughts on “Sean Parker on Facebook’s Brain Hacking”

  1. Social media apps have evolved tremendously over the years in keeping us addicted to it, constantly testing what moves the needle in terms of attention and time spent on app/website.

    When people ask me about productivity hacks, my default question is: “Do you use social media during the day?”. Obviously, everybody says yes. I tell them: simplest productivity hack of all is to not do that. Focus on what you are doing, what’s in front of you.

    It’s crazy that 15-20 years ago these apps didn’t exist and now we can’t live without them. I – and many others, like yourself – need to remind people that it is killing our work, productivity, and social life.

  2. Very interesting and scary too to hear it directly from one of the founding members. Good that it has been 2 good years now that I’ve quit Facebook. Thanks Cal for another article in your mission to emphasize deep work amidst an ever noisy technology.

  3. Head spinning stuff! And they’re now publicly being audacious and nonchalant about F-ing with humanity’s collective mind resources.
    Thanks always, that’s why I tell my friends, I just like your radical approach of “Quit social media”. The cons farrrrrrr outweigh the benefits like missing out weather closings for schools or garage sale deals!

    • There’s also the option of minimal use (for some). A parallel for me is that I have a glass or 2 of wine or cider about once a week. Perhaps once every 2 months I have three. Giving up entirely doesn’t suit me, but I’m comfortable with my intake. Ditto Facebook.
      I do appreciate that “none” is easier for some than “just a little”.

  4. The impact of who is making this statement opposed to what was said is really the nuclear bomb. I’ve always kind of held out (even after reading Cal’s treaties) and have been using FB and Twitter for connecting with family, friends, and being somewhat informed. Now after reading this… I feel a bit remorseful about ever having joined. Real question is: how do people disconnect from these “services” and still maintain a sense of connection with the rest of what culture has already deemed “acceptable news”?

    • Hi Aaron. I think to a degree you have to stop caring about what others deem “acceptable news.” I’d even take it one further by asking “is the news, as it is, worth keeping up with?”

      I’ve been off FB & Twitter for years. I directly text people I want contact with and sometimes even call them. Believe or not sending a card or letter in the mail is pretty cool too. People appreciate the personal touch.

      I think it’s all about what is most important to you. Is communication in a more tangible, organic, truly connected way meaningful to you – or is fleeting, quick, fairly antiseptic communication of value in your personal life?

    • I’m with Mrs. Q. What news do you really want to know about? Most media are biased by each medium’s desire for your attention, and also by various special interests (money, politics, Russians, etc..)

      My current approach is to read Wikipedia’s current events page daily. It’s concise and non-sensationalist, and it reports on current events important globally (and a few quirky, unimportant ones as well), and provides links to articles with elaboration.

      I recently had a great airplane conversation with a Kenyan woman about last month’s election fiasco. This wouldn’t have happened without a thorough news source, but I don’t have to wade through all the nonsense about Trump’s tweeting habits.

      (for reference, the current events page is here:

  5. Its seems obvious to me that socializing has it’s time and place, but our inability to connect in real life seems to be the root of the problem. If we truly connected to our loved ones, friends and family in real time we would not put so much value on Facebook, Instagram and the like. It’s as simple as that.

    • I think the crux of this post and indeed what Sean Parker was getting at is that, in principle, the majority of the value that we get from social media is fabricated by attention hacking psychology and painted with a brush of ‘social value’.

      In other words, there’s very little inherent value for our social lives, that’s just a promotional veneer to entice you to use it, when really all it’s for is to keep you engaged for as long as possible.

  6. hey sir,
    Iam from a village in God’s own country Kerala,India. I happened read your deep work. I was an active user in facebook, instagram, whatsapp. But I quit all of them and its been a month now. The only thing i want to tell you is now i can feel my breath and life.(period). My academic and personal life is getting better.
    thank you very much.

  7. It is good to hear a truth from you, thanks for this. As Yours acknowledgement, we, some of others also know about the fact that FB is dragging our brain and time, but we are all have the freedom to choice,what to do and we are also doing so. And it is true that it is separating us from real life, but it’s invention was on good intention. So its our own choice, how do we use it?? right way or giving to hack our brain…..

  8. The worst is that all this social media hack people minds and lives offline. I know people who go to places just to make photos to post online or think for hours what to post and what to share and spend days checking how many likes got their last post. It`s madness. They are stealing people`s lives. How Zuckerberg can think this is a good thing and have a good sleep at night?

  9. I’ve never been a part of social media, partiality due to the fact that my uncle was vocal about his suspicions with facebook and advised against using it (turns out there was a good amount of merit to his claim). I’m not completely free from the distractions of modern technology, but I do notice a difference in myself compared to others from my generation. My grandpa has told me that he appreciates that I don’t take my phone out a lot when I visit him, and I can go without my phone for longer than a lot of other people can. I’m glad I decided to stay away from social media.

  10. The more info we have about these “services” the better. I think it’s sort of like Pinnochio when he’s getting all this free stuff and having so much fun without any cost. But there is a cost, which only becomes apparent after. These apps are free but we’re paying with our time, our focus and ultimately control over how we live of lives. 60 minutes had some ex engineers on recently that talked about how they keep people addicted.

  11. My last social media account was friendster and some people say I’m antisocial for not having facebook but I never feel deprived nor have I lost any friend worth crying over because of it.

  12. Your solutions are great but I never could follow them diligently. Being a student, I often take more time for my assignments that I planned and sometimes just stay stuck because of some weird bug that i wrote. I wish you would write something of a fault-tolerant approach towards work. What to do when you mess up big time? It is so easy to feel defeated if you have been struggling for a long time and when giving up is not a choice. It is also very lowering. So my question is : “How to restart your schedule after a failure or how to continue despite failing ?” I hope you find time to answer. Thank you !

    • I think you should feel good that you are trying and failing – that is a big step ahead of not doing anything. And failures are the best events that’ll help you learn to successfully do things. Maybe you should see them exactly like that, as lessons that will help you improve yourself, and try to do that without attaching any negative emotions on failures. It will mostly always only be one small step in the right direction, but if you stay on track soon they will add up. Always look back at failures to see what can be improved, dissect it, analyze it, and make every failure count as a lesson for your growth. But never look back to feel low or feel that you are a failure. You are not. Everyone, remember this, everyone goes through their fair share of failures. Successful once are the one who learn their lessons from failures.
      You won’t achieve all that you want to do in a day, or a week, or a year. And failing is part of a good life. You will mess things up again. So try to accept it, and be kind to yourself when you fail.

      Finally, we are all creatures of habit. How to start after a failure? Just do it every time after you fail. Knowing and understanding what I said earlier might help in starting. And once you do it enough number of times, you’ll develop the habit of starting to work no matter how badly you fail.

  13. I wonder about the effect it has on people in their real life. If a parent posts every school activity and sporting event on social media, what is the effect on the parent of being constantly on the lookout for a ‘social media moment’ with their children’s lives? How does it affect the child that his life is being broadcast like ‘The Truman Show’? Even when social media users are not online, it still is consuming their brain because they see activities and moments through a social media filter of ‘this pic and caption of my child’s day will get more likes and comments than that one’. Heavy social media users are constantly evaluating their lives and the people in them for content.

  14. I think its interesting how he points out the creators knew what they were doing, exploiting a vulnerability in the human psychology but I am glad we recognize this flaw and some of us are actively trying to change. I have had my own struggles with social media and internet in general. I am starting to shift towards reading more books and less articles because the books are more in depth and provide a deeper knowledge then short articles.

  15. Not to judge the guy too harshly, but in the few interviews I’ve seen with Zuckerberg he seems a little ….antisocial. He strikes me as someone I would keep at the acquaintance level but not let babysit my kids. According to that standard, maybe I shouldn’t give a tool created with his mindset unlimited access to my consciousness.
    The now-substantiated social costs of this little technological terror Zuckerberg et. al. have constructed are perhaps a reflection of Zuckerberg’s personality. At the very least, shouldn’t there be *some* attention to the personality and motivations of the person who creates a tool with such direct psychological impact over so many?
    As I examine my personal experience using FB I note some positives, but they are few. The negatives are legion.
    In the meantime, as a cautionary measure I’m switching my FB account monitoring to once-per-year.

  16. I think chatbots will destroy social networks if not changing the internet as we know. Russia and China has been manipulating people’s minds for years with social engineering and marketing to their way liking and its wormed its way into the western parts of the world challenging democracy.

  17. Exploitation of the social validation loop isn’t unique to social media or other products that use persuasive technology and tactics. It underlies most advertising and marketing.

    “Think diffferent” but wear these white ear buds that show you are one of the people who “gets it.”

    For years, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway partner, Charlie Munger has recommended reading Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence.” It shouldn’t surprise if Parker and others of his ilk have read and applied it in their quest for what Munger and Buffett have achieved. Read it for yourself to understand the principles behind these “hacks” and inform your own personal strategy against media distraction and manipulation.

  18. I think the crux of this post and indeed what Sean Parker was getting at is that, in principle, the majority of the value that we get from social media is fabricated by attention hacking psychology and painted with a brush of ‘social value’.

  19. Psychological factors indeed influence people to spend more time on social media. But it is not the only problem with Facebook. In my opinion, the main dangerous problem is scam promotion that can affect adults and children, especially children. Also, I’ve found some interesting additional information about Facebook’s influence on the audience:

    Cal, what your thoughts about this?


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