Landing : Athabascau University

Social Media as cage

An article from Huffington Post this week, (Likely Cause of Addiction), about addiction made me aware of a theme I was encountering reading some of the theorists of Social Computing this week. First, an introduction to a theory of addiction that may not sound as familiar as the two more prevalent theories that addiction is a brain disease or a behavioural disease. (CBC Is addiction a disease? for a background on those two theories.) Here is the introduction for an alternative perspective:

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage (Hari, 2016).

The science supporting the notion of the cage links back to work by Bruce Alexander in building a Rat Park where rats were given an idyllic rat environment and the option of water or water laced with cocaine. His finding is they don't become addicted, and rats from cages with cocaine that are addicted come clean in the Rat Park.

Hold that thought.

What was I reading about from the Social Media theorists concerned about the sparseness of the SM environments of say FaceBook and Twitter?

Nicholas Carr describes the shift from the open frontiers of the web to the more strip-mall, err strip-minded heavily populated sites:

What had been a tool under my own control was morphing into a medium under the control of others. The computer screen was becoming, as all mass media tend to become, an environment, a surrounding, an enclosure, at worst a cage [emphasis his]. (Carr, 2014, 3%).

Carr is a bit vindictive towards the Califorian Ideology so maybe I was experiencing an aberration. But my next encounter was Geert Lovink, himself trying to think our way out of the cage, referencing Andrew Keen about the same metaphor:

According to Keen, the social here is a tidal wave that is flattening everything in its path. Keen warns that we will end up in an anti-social future, characterized by the 'loneliness of the isolated man in the connected crowd'. Confined inside the software cages [emphasis his] of Facebook, Google and their clones, users are encouraged to reduce their social life to 'sharing' (Lovink, 2016, 15%).

Was this possible? Had the long tail of Internet been pulled in a manner to collapse and flatten the social media dwellings. Okay, maybe it is just the cultural media critics sharing a meme with themselves :-)  But the connection revealed itself to me when reading Mike Caulfield's work on creating a more flexible social bookmarking / wiki, which he has called Wikity. Here is Mike (not the dark media critique) musing over how to attract users to his platform:

We could structure Wikity around social rewards in the future, and that might happen. But ultimately, for me, that struggle to understand why Wikity was not addictive in the ways that Twitter and Facebook were ended up being the most important part of the project (Caulfield, 2016).

I haven't explored all Caulfield's connections but maybe we can link up some of the thoughts here. When social media users are confronted with the sparse environment, as if they were passing messages through the jail cell food opening or rattling their 'like' mugs against the cell bars for attention, we maybe begin to wonder why the metaphor of cage keeps resurfacing.

Back to our Huffington Post article for a moment:

Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe.

Now the story takes on an unfortunate twist. The rush of online users to social media services could very well be that deep need to bond and form connections. However, we have equally witnessed the phenomena of addiction to these services that Caulfield mentioned. If we think this in reverse it must be that the existing platforms are just that, far to sparse and nothing like the Rat Park, they are cages.


Carr, N. (2016). Utopia is creep: and other provocations. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, NY.

Caulfield, M. (2016). Wikity, one year later. Hapgood.  [Electronic Wiki]. Retrieved from

Hari, J. (2016). The likely cause of addiction has been discovered, and it's not what you think. Huffington Post, [Electronic News]. Retrieved from

Lovink, G. (2016). Social media abyss: Critical Internet cultures and the force of negation. Polity, Cambridge, UK.


  • Jon Dron January 29, 2017 - 8:00pm

    A really interesting set of connections - a line of thought worth pursuing. I'm mildly sceptical of the notion of Internet (or social media, or game) addiction, though I've supervised projects and adjudicated on a few papers on the topic, so I accept that there are arguments to be made. But the cage metaphor is a useful way to create focus that avoids pronouncing too much one way or the other: whether or not it's addiction, there are certainly people that feel some compulsion and/or constraint, beyond the intrinsic pleasure of using such systems. That's interesting, whatever the cause.

    As with all things technological, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. For some people, using some systems, social media are anything but isolating (e.g. dating sites, netroots phenomena, community action, not to mention the notably personal use of emerging ephemeral tools like Snapchat or WhatsApp for sustaining and nurturing meatspace relationships). For some people (notably those isolated for some other reason), social media can be incredibly liberating. One of the reasons I much prefer critiques from the likes of Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, and Eli Pariser, is that they start from a vastly more technically savvy background, and they recognize both the value and the risk in ways populist authors like Carr and Keen deliberately fail to do.

    I can't recall seeing much recent research on the subject, but it was always a good answer to those that complained about modern kids retreating into virtual spaces like computer games that research overwhelmingly showed that such kids were more active, social, and engaged in other areas of life too. I have become complacent in believing this to remain true. It depends on many factors, and the boundaries of technical and social space are shifting all the time. Most researchers either seem to want to find averages (an enticing but terrible idea for such complex phenomena) or rely on case studies or (in the case of Carr, Keen, etc) just anecdotal evidence and personal observation. Neither extreme - average or specific- is of much use in itself. From the qualitative studies, we need to generate good testable models to help differentiate kinds of involvement,  kinds of system, and different ways of using them, that can be applied in larger empirical studies. We need technologists to tinker with ways of building tools that apply or generate models, which in turn can have very large effects on the future behaviours, and that may invalidate previous studies because they change the variables. Reliable models are thin on the ground and constantly subject to challenge from new technologies, changing large-scale patterns, and so on. It's what makes this field really interesting and poorly charted territory!