We humans have become masters of supernormal stimuli. Our ability to give ourselves what we want has far outstripped our ability to sense what we really need. And in the accelerating win/lose game-theoretic arms race that has characterized late 20th-century and early 21st-century society, the use and abuse of supernormal stimuli has become an almost requisite tool in the product marketing toolkit.
In every possible market niche, we see an arms race for attention and choice making (voting, purchasing, public opinion). And in each case, a ruthless (and reckless) use of increasingly sophisticated understandings of human physio-emotional and psycho-cognitive systems (and their supernormal vulnerabilities) is part of any viable competitive strategy. Anyone who fails to take advantage of supernormal stimuli is selected against, and the general drift of the entire market is towards increasing disruption of our evolved homeostatic systems.
It is important to note that, at a social level (i.e. using “collective intelligence”), we have shown some capacity to develop defenses to these supernormal vulnerabilities (e.g., the emergence of social movements regulating sugar, nicotine, etc.). However, these social defenses tend to move relatively slowly and to be unevenly distributed. Moreover, the general rule that decentralized market-based mechanisms outcompete top-down regulatory mechanisms seems to be in play here.
Social media is the gamification of supernormal stimuli to hijack both “attention allocation” (what we pay attention to) and “social relationship.” Notifications (particularly bings and buzzes on our phone), likes, hearts, simple and explicit “friending,” even just the extraordinary pace and vastness of the news feed itself — all of these are supernormal stimuli that play havoc with our homeostatic systems (e.g., neurotransmitter feedback loops) and the adaptive capacities that rely on them (e.g., forming and maintaining real relationships, thinking about reality).
Supernormal stimuli in social media is particularly risky because in social media it's directly undermining our capacity for individual and collective intelligence. In this context, hijacking of evolved functions disrupts our private and social capacity to act based on objective reality or to respond to the problem itself (i.e. fighting back).
Social media enables an entirely new kind of human relationship: the “weak affinity” bond. In the social media space, it is trivial to (a) find people who very closely share your own perspectives and preferences and to (b) avoid people who do not (up to and including simply “blocking” them from your perception with the click of a mouse).
These kinds of bonds are the “cotton candy” of relationship. On the one hand they are easy and pleasant. On the other hand, they build little of enduring value. In the context of “attention exploiting media” where there is a premium placed on getting as many eyeballs as possible — this new potential for weak affinity becomes an operational mandate. A social platform that lacks the ability to filter or block unpleasant participants will quickly be outcompeted by one that has that capacity.
As adaptive creatures (particularly developmentally during childhood and adolescence), we cannot help but respond and adapt to the signals of our physical and social environment. Weak affinity environments reward and punish behaviours very differently from strong community environments. Thus, as we spend more and more time in virtual social spaces and (by necessity) less and less time in physical social spaces, we observe the continual movement of virtual social space towards asymptotically superficial echo chambers and the participants in these echo chambers trained for skills like emotional fragility, virtue signaling, conformity policing, and / or neo-sociopathy. These are not the ingredients of an enduring society.