The Engagement Loop.


Leading a healthy lifestyle isn’t always easy, but it is made even more difficult when our friends and family are steering us away from the straight and narrow. You plan on going to the gym but all of your work colleagues are heading for a drink down the pub. At home, each family member is perched in a row on the sofa in front of the TV- it’s like being welcomed into an episode of the Simpsons. And before dinner, you grab your shopping bag, intent on doing some nutritious grocery shopping only to hear that your flatmates are ordering pizza. It’s really not our fault that we lead an unhealthy lifestyle; we are creatures of conformity and of convenience, hardwired as social mammals to follow the crowd.

If our habits affect our health, then our health is reflected in the company we keep. For better of for worse, communities affect our lives by facilitating, guiding and reinforcing behaviour. Communities are the most effective agents of behavioural change because a community that fails to encourage its unique behaviour will fail to adopt new members and die.

We can witness social pressures in every theatre of our lives. Do work colleagues ever offer you a cigarette? How many times a day? Watch how they guide partakers to the emergency exit. And what if you refuse? Do they support your choice to be healthy or turn their nose up in disapproval? Maybe part of why they smoke is to not to be exiled from the infamous smokers group themselves. Their persistent knocking grinds us down. Either we cave in and change our ways to fit in with the group or we are exiled. We’re a social species. No one likes being an outcast.

Perhaps you are a victim. But perhaps you’re also a perpetrator. Have you ever offered someone an alcoholic drink? Told them to skip the gym, sit down and relax? Taken orders for pizza delivery? Let’s realise that within our affiliate communities we are all student and teacher, enforcer and conformist, and players in a system of behaviour.

If we want to live healthier lives, then we should prudently screen the communities in which we socialise. Unfortunately, changing one’s social circles is easier said than done. No one wants to abandon their families or ignore their co-workers. Being anti-social is not a virtue. Nor am I suggesting that anyone drop out of school, quit their job, switch national allegiances or trade in Barca for Real Madrid. All that requires effort and resolve.

I’m suggesting something a little easier. For what I’m suggesting, we barely have to lift a finger.

Photo by Nordwood Themes on Unsplash.

In the digital age, we don’t have to rely on face-to-face interaction for our socializing. Computer-based communication ignores the traditional constraints of proximity, allowing crowds to interact across vast physical distances. With a smartphone in our pockets, we are continually bombarded, not by physical confrontations, but by bits of information riding waves of electromagnetic frequencies. Despite the correlation of proximity to others and their affect on our behaviour, proximity was never the cause. It is communication and interaction that influence our behaviour, and this can be done online.

The Community EffectCommunity influence is directly proportional to the amount of communication and interaction with the members of that community.

Adults spend an average of 11 hours a day staring at some kind of screen, whether that be a computer, phone, tablet, TV or another type of electronic device. The English philosopher Will Durant said succinctly, ‘we are what we repeatedly do’. In the digital age, there’s nothing we do more habitually than check our smartphones. According to the U.S. edition of the 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey from Deloitte, Americans check their smartphones an average of 52 times a day. That data is pre the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now more than ever, Facebook and Twitter inundate us with messages about social norms and moral expectations. YouTube guides us with tutorials and displays. Instagram motivates us with social comparisons. In a time when social distancing might be the new norm, our smartphones might influence our behaviour more than our neighbours.

Social media algorithms sift through online content and deliver only what is relevant to you based on your past behaviour. The videos recommended by YouTube, for example, are based on what you’ve watched in the past. The algorithms don’t know your tastes and interests before you consume content. They understand your interests based on what you’ve already consumed.

We can trick the algorithms into thinking we’re into a sport, religion, hobby, exercise or any other pastime before we’re actually into it. Don’t be fooled into thinking your tastes won’t change. Like the neurons in our brains, our interests are malleable and adjust depending on social conditioning. Do our interests follow our behaviour, or vice versa? You might as well ask the chicken and the egg.

Photo by Luke Brugger on Unsplash

With one click, we can ‘like’, ‘follow’ or ‘subscribe’ to groups, pages and channels. The algorithms then feed us videos, photos, and articles from the associated communities, influencing our behaviour. If you’d like to improve your cooking skills, then simply ‘like’ Jamie Olivers Facebook page. If it frustrates you that you know little about the music scene, follow Rolling Stone magazine on Instagram. If you’d like to build upper body strength with calisthenics, then subscribe to the ‘Madbarz’ and ‘OfficialThenX’ Youtube channels. I did and it wasn’t long before I traded in the sofa for the park and finally got around to installing that pull-up bar over the kitchen doorway.

With algorithmic assistance, online communities persistently guide and motivate new behaviour. Online communities are constantly adding content, reinforcing behaviours through the engagement loop. Communication and interaction don’t have to be reciprocal to affect behaviour. Simply looking, listening and learning will suffice in altering our behaviour.

Refusing a cigarette is easier if your Instagram is full of attractive runners soaking up the sun, reminding you of the value of your lungs. Sitting down at your computer to write in the morning is easier when your newsfeed is filled with articles in which authors attribute their success to a morning writing habit. Cooking healthier meals is easier when your Facebook feed is filled with a buffet of delicious dishes, each with accompanying ingredient lists and recipes.

Online we can select from a free buffet of communities, each offering a new skill, interest or idea. We can choose to socialise with communities already expressing the behaviour we which to adopt. We can plug into these communities like Neo in the Matrix and let the digital bits wash our brains.

So, can we change the world with a few taps of a screen? Slacktivists think so. They scroll through social media, signing petitions that save bees, preserve rainforests, and oppose oil drilling in the oceans- so much heroism from the comfort of their home. We can do more than save the world with a tap on our smartphone; we can save ourselves, too. Remember that you are a product of your ‘likes’, ‘follows’ and ‘subscribes’. Be shrewd and click with caution.