The Dark Side of Engagement 

by Tiffany Lee Brown, a.k.a. T

You know when your black-cloaked client sweeps into Starbucks in his jackboots, breathes heavily through his black face mask, and intones, “Come to the Dark Side, Luke”?Probably not. What happens in real life is far more subtle: your nice client just wants engagement and the fabulous social media metrics that go with it.

I was part of the early Internet Revolution, the ‘90s dot-com bubble, the Web 2.0 and “user-generated content” movements—all the stuff leading up to social. We used words like “convergence” and tried to convince our clients that someday, you’d be able to watch movies over the Internet (gasp!). We went to intimate gatherings where the latest technologies were shown by their eager inventors; I remember watching a screen fill up with satellite images of city streets around the world while a guy told me, “Someday, everyone will have access to this—in their own living rooms.” Even he didn’t realize we’d all be carrying it around in our pockets.

We weren’t evil people, for the most part. We thought we were making the world a better place. We assumed engagement was just plain good. Instead of staring at televisions, our users would share opinions, create neat stuff, and revitalize democracy!

Well, we got a little of that. Unfortunately, we also got increased depression and anxiety. We got a Russian-manipulated, outrage-fueled partisan divide that threatens to collapse American society. We also got fragmented attention spans, fragmented relationships, and hey, look at this kitten who can type with her paws! omg heart-eyes-emoji.

Wait. What were we talking about?


“Don’t underestimate the Force.” 
—Darth Vader


“Research has demonstrated a linear relationship with social media use and increased rates of depression and anxiety,” says Audry Van Houweling, founder of She Soars Psychiatry in Sisters, Oregon, “especially among youth and adolescents.” In other words, the more often we tap away on our phones and tablets, the more likely we are to get the blues.

Even if it connects us with friends far away, even if following the play-by-play of Russian investigations makes us feel like good citizens—engagement drains our energy, time, and perspective. It’s hard to connect with real people or make positive political change without those precious resources.

The folks who design social media technologies and program addictive news call it “hijacking your brain.” Today’s software and hardware are designed to engage users constantly—and make us feel anxious if we step offline. “Evidence suggests the same dopaminergic pathways that are activated with addictions such as gambling and substance use are activated with ongoing digital device use as well,” explains Van Houweling. “This can create emotional highs and lows and literally withdrawals when digital devices are taken away or not available.”

The pull-to-refresh mechanism in many apps provides a great example of how this technology sucks people in. Updating a screen with a downward-pull motion is unnecessary with today’s tech, but companies still use it to increase their apps’ addictive qualities. Users respond to it like gamblers pulling a one-armed bandit’s lever in a casino. The engineer who designed it, Lorne Brichter, says, “I have two kids now and I regret every minute that I’m not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.”


“That’s not how the Force works!”
—Han Solo


Design, at its best, is a creative problem-solving discipline that melds beauty, elegance, and function. Like a light saber, it can be wielded by good guys and bad guys alike… and by in-between guys who don’t quite understand the ramifications of their work. Excellent design is why we constantly check notifications, play games, and drop into rabbitholes of content we didn’t plan to view.

“It became this kind of puppet-master effect, where all of these products are puppet-mastering all these different users,” admitted Tristan Harris, formerly a product designer at Google, in a recent interview. “That was really bad.”

Harris and other prominent Silicon Valley technologists have begun to speak out against the Frankenstein they helped create. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, says he puts boundaries on the kids in his life: “There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.” Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier has been a deep thinker in the industry for decades. His current thinking can be summed up in the title of his latest book: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

It’s not just programmers and casino consultants who built this brave new world. Marketing and media professionals must shoulder a boulder of the blame—even if we consider ourselves fairly decent people. The social media revolution owes its ascendancy in part to our specialized skills, knowledge, and talents.


 “Use the Force, Luke.” 
—Obi Wan Kenobi


So what do we do now? Can we encourage responsible technology use in our clients, our bosses, and—let’s face it—ourselves? The ethics of marketing have always been dicey. How can we bring more integrity, meaning, and compassion to our work? Let’s dig into these issues together at Beyond Design.

Meetup Session:
The Dark Side of Engagement
by Tiffany Lee Brown, a.k.a. T
Friday October 26 at 1:30 PM
Deschutes Brewery Tap Room

T is a writer, editor, poet, mom, and interdisciplinary artist living in the woods of Oregon. Her nonfiction has appeared in Wired, Utne, The Oregonian, Bust, Oregon Humanities, Bookforum, Portland Monthly,  and BoingBoing, along with various books and journals. She attempts to promote values of meaning, creativity, and integrity in her strategic, branding, and editorial projects. Her client list includes Nike, Samsung, NBC/Universal, and the musician Sting, along with local favorites like Fort George Brewery and Kid Made Camp. She frequently collaborates with the Portland-based firm Plazm, which now operates in Central Oregon as well.

This article includes excerpts from T’s series in The Nugget, the local newspaper of Sisters, Oregon. The series explores the effects of digital media on kids, families, and everybody else—and the healing potential of spending time in nature without devices. If you’re interested in following this subject, please attend the meetup session, or contact T the old-school way: email tiffany (at) plazm dot com. You won’t find her on social anymore.