Is Infinite Scroll the Slot Machine of the New Generation?
The infinite scroll paradox and how Instagram fixed—then ruined it—for users.
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Infinite scrolling is everywhere. It’s part of how social networks feed you content and how YouTube and Google serve you search results. While some think it’s a good idea, most designers advise against it.
“One of my lessons from infinite scroll: that optimizing something for ease-of-use does not mean best for the user or humanity.”
— said Aza Raskin, who invented the concept of the infinite scroll in 2006. He also said that his own creation wastes about 200,000 human lifetimes per day.
Recently, Raskin was featured in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. The documentary discusses how social media companies try to tweak their algorithms to squeeze out more engagement from their users.
While infinite scrolling is not generating endless engagement in itself, it’s a powerful concept, as best illustrated by the evolution of Instagram.
1. Hello world
Instagram launched in October 2010 and hit 10 million monthly active users in a year. Back then, the service didn’t have stories, IGTV, or reels — it was a plain and simple image-sharing network with a 1:1 aspect ratio.
There was one thing they implemented from the start: infinite scrolling, a common technique among social networks. Their feed displayed friends’ posts in reverse chronological order.
The concept is sometimes referred to as a “dopamine seeking reward loop.” Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral psychologist, has put it the following way:
When you bring up the feed on one of your favorite apps the dopamine loop has become engaged. With every photo you scroll through, headline you read, or link you go to you are feeding the loop which just makes you want more. It takes a lot to reach satiation, and in fact you might never be satisfied. Chances are what makes you stop is that someone interrupts you. It turns out the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in.
In a nutshell, you’re curious about what comes next in the feed. So you keep continuing over and over because you know that there might be something important to you. But the feed of information never ends.
The behavior is even worse than continuously refilling your plate at a buffet. With food, there is a sense of satiety when you know that you can’t eat more.
How Instagram initially implemented infinite scrolling was still one of the more user-friendly options. Back then, they hadn’t scrambled their feed to put posts randomly after each other but implemented a reverse chronological order. With that, users could recognize if they were already looking at posts from two weeks before.
2. The algorithm takes over
In 2016, four years after the Facebook acquisition, Instagram changed its feed logic and announced algorithmic sorting for the following reason:
…to improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.
The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.
The motivator behind the change? Engagement and ad dollars.
Engagement: Users simply spend more time within the image-sharing application if their feed is scrambled. The dopamine effect is kicking in, and they’re just looking for the next surprise.
Ad dollars: Instagram rolled out ads globally, just a shy six months before introducing algorithmic sorting. The timing is probably not a coincidence, as more time spent in the app translates to more ad revenue.
From the aspect of behavioral psychology, the unpredictable algorithm just made things worse. Until that point, users had control of how much earlier they go back in time when they are scrolling their Instagram feed.
Now, this control is gone.
The mental crutches that were provided are not available anymore. Even a recent post could make it to the very end of the feed, so you’ll likely spend more time getting through your content.
3. Good guy Instagram
In 2018, several companies started to battle against smartphone addiction. As part of this effort, Instagram also tweaked its feed again and introduced a new “You’re All Caught Up” message in the app. This notification appeared above posts older than two days or the ones already seen by the user:
With this change, Instagram became the good guy again.
While the feed was still algorithmically ordered and filled with ads, users regained some mind control over the infinite scroll. Most users treated this as a welcome change, and some even realized how unhealthy habits they’ve formed with their favorite social media app:
…a week or so later, it’s starting to feel less like a sweet smile and more like an admonishment. It’s as if I was trying to quit sugar and, every time I reached for a cookie at 3:36 P.M. in my office, a hologram of my elementary-school gym teacher’s face appeared, shaking its head and signaling that the jar is empty.
The catch? There was none.
While a similar notification was never fully released to the Facebook feed, Workplace, the company’s corporate collaboration platform, received the feature.
What is interesting to note here is the different goals of the two products and how they relate to the concept of infinite scrolling:
For consumer Facebook, the goal is to get more people to the platform and make them spend more time. This generates more ad views and more money from advertisers. Regular users don’t pay anything for the service. This way, the infinite scroll and any actions to keep users glued to their screen directly benefit the company.
For the corporate Workplace tool, the objective is similar, but not the same. The first part matches, to get more people on the platform. The difference though that these people don’t see any advertisements as their companies are paying for the service. Here, Facebook doesn’t benefit from increasing the screen time on the platform as long as users are engaged enough to continue to pay.
4. Bad guy Instagram
Back in 2018, before Instagram announced its new screen time feature, former CEO and co-founder Kevin Systrom said the following:
In contrast, it seems this year, Instagram was reversing its stance from two years ago when they intended the time spent on the application to be “positive and intentional.”
In August 2020, the social media company introduced Suggested Posts. These posts show up after you’ve reached the end of your feed, from accounts that you don’t actually follow. Once you scroll past the “You’re All Caught Up” message, you’ll encounter this endless loop of suggestions.
Instagram’s Julian Gutman says the content here is planned to be different from the Discover tab. While Suggested Posts feature related content to what people already follow, the Explore tab remains a place for adjacent content.
So what does it mean in the context of the infinite scroll?
Infinite scroll is often regarded as the new generation’s slot machine. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, described has described it in the following way:
“You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing,”
With Instagram’s recent feed change, the company just reinforced this concept. If it was already enticing to see new posts from people you follow, how tempting could it be to discover things from an entirely new group of creators?
So is it okay if you just scroll down one more time?
And one more time?
Suggested posts also feature advertisements. In between two posts, you might find similar ads as if you were browsing through your friends’ posts.
Clearly, there is a commercial motivation behind it. As discussed before, the more time users spend glued to their feed, the more ad views are generated, and the more profit Instagram is making from advertisers.
With great power comes great responsibility
Companies utilizing psychological tricks that make you consume more must have some kind of responsibility. Instagram is clearly not alone in this game, and it’s also not just about social media companies.
Infinite scrolling is still widely used in many applications, even though it’s proven to be addictive at best and harmful at worst.
What we can do—and perhaps the only thing we can do at this point — is be mindful of our habits.
Next time, if you realize that you’ve been mindlessly browsing something for at least fifteen minutes, ask yourself:
Was it time well spent?
You would be surprised how many times you would say no.