Data, Dopamine and Discourse

This column appeared Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


Seems like every time I turn around, Mark Zuckerberg is apologizing for some systemic transgression. Cambridge Analytica gaining access to Facebook user data is just the latest faux pas. Woops. “Sorry ‘bout that. We’ll do better.” I’m left with the impression they’ve created a monster and are clueless about how to rein it in. It reminds me of Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, who, after inventing the atomic bomb, had profound second thoughts after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I see early Facebook founders, who are not Zuckerberg, making the media rounds, mea culpa-ing, warning of all manner of doom and gloom. I interpret their message as basically, “We didn’t mean to, well maybe we did, but we created these dopamine-driven feedback loops and they’re screwing up our society.”

Global civic discourse, cooperation and truth are the victims.

Dopamine is a chemical compound, released by nerve cells that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It enables us humans to not only see rewards, but then take conscious action to get them. For people like me, genetically predisposed to addiction, that hits close to home.

My father’s parents were alcoholics in an era when it was rarely acknowledged, much less dealt with. During his last three years, the old man opened up to me about his troubled childhood and those conversations led me to write a creative non-fiction memoir about the impact of alcoholism on generations of our family.       

Alcohol, drugs, gambling, and social media stimulate the production of dopamine. The scientists say the dopamine response is significantly reduced in people like me, leading to a need to drink more, gamble more, eyeball Facebook more, to feel a buzz. I’m no scientist, but I am a recovering alcoholic. I also have some social media accounts, so it behooves me to understand the risks. It’s been more than 25 years since my last drink, but it’s been about a half-hour since I checked Facebook.  

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I use Facebook to share these newspaper columns through my website. When I started writing them last summer, I shared them from the Merc’s site and noticed the online reaction was diminished (quantity and quality) than when I shared them directly from my website.

My gut tells me it’s aesthetics. I can include a message-driven photo with mine, and write a punchier two or three-word attention-grabbing headline. Can’t do that in the newspaper. Headlines for this column need to be 45-46 characters long, which is more than two or three words. I used to suggest headlines, but the Merc crew wrote their own, so now I leave that creative chore to the pros.   
     
I check Facebook (on my laptop and phone) several times a day. Far too many times while driving, I’ll admit. If I get hit by a truck, please, someone read this column at my funeral and share it on social media as a cautionary tale.

My second favorite newspaper columnist, David Brooks of the New York Times, has me figured out. “We compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.”

When I wrote my book, I was encouraged by more chimers-in than not, with varying levels of publishing and social media sophistication, to set up an “author’s page” on Facebook, to seek a new audience. I’d share excerpts and blog posts about the book on my author’s page and my regular page. The same thing shared from two pages looked like repetition, so I deep-sixed the author’s page.

Again, aesthetics.

I use LinkedIn to establish my professional bona fides. It’s a non-threatening way to establish credibility in a professional relationship. As opposed to walking into that first meeting and leading with, “Uh... hang on a sec. Before we get started, please allow me to show you this PowerPoint which details my vast and extensive résumé and life experience.”

I still haven’t figured out Twitter, despite some honest sit-downs with tech-fluent millennials. My problem is I try to treat it like Facebook and its apples and oranges. At least apples and pears. I’ve been on Instagram about a year and have posted a couple hundred photos of random crap, mostly my dogs romping at Marlatt Park. I prefer the Mayfair and X-Pro II filters, which apparently make the dogs appear more lovable and me, more talented.

Again, dopamine.

The only time I go on Pinterest is around Christmas and my wife’s birthday, to carefully examine a board she has populated with gift suggestions, labeled, “Attention Mike.”

Subtle, that one.

Like Oppenheimer’s A-bombs, the Internet genie’s long out of the bottle. Like time, technology only moves one way. Before I die (unless I get hit by that truck tomorrow while checking Facebook cruising down Anderson Avenue) my washing machine will talk to my refrigerator through the Internet. Imagine that actual conversation.

Washing machine: “Uh… think maybe that egg salad’s gone south, my friend.”
Refrigerator: “You oughta know, you and your grungy boxer shorts.”

I could deactivate my Twitter account tomorrow and not blink an eye. Instagram? What about the doggie pics? LinkedIn? But, but… professional reputation management.

Facebook?

Read my column. Look at me.