The Evils of the Algorithm

The ethical dilemma of building an addictive product

Published June 5, 2023

Nearly half of teenaged girls report that they feel more addicted to TikTok than they’d prefer. 

To captivate the user attention and maintain it, you must suck them in. Prey on their senses and tempt them into the virtual fortress that you’ve built. And they will enjoy it! They will use it! What’s wrong with that?

We feel an innate unease at our own addictions. We feel the pull towards the productive, to enable our own life-force that involves action rather than passivity. Then why do we get stuck in the draw of the algorithm? How does it suck us in so completely? Product creators need our usership, they beg for our attention, and it is clear now that they will do almost anything to keep it.


Burgeoning product developers are now hyper-aware of the ethical implications of producing an addictive algorithm, as we have all experienced it firsthand. This forces them to weigh two options in order to survive:

1. Produce an algorithm that pulls the user in


2. Create a service so valuable that users will pay for, but not get sucked into

Which option is best, especially when we’re competing for both the user’s attention and money? To break this down further, product designers have the option to target either a user audience who don’t have much expendable income, but have lots of time vs. an audience who don’t want to waste their time and are able to pay for a good product. Ideally, you can target both, but this runs into an issue of creating a balanced end-result that caters to two very distinct groups, who hold different user needs.

A year ago, in late 2022, BeReal had summitted its peak. One could be out in the world and know the precise moment BeReal had gone off, simply by observing public behaviour. It was the mandatory reaction: you take a picture of what you’re doing, you upload, and scroll to see what your friends are doing at this very moment. You left the app, with their posts gone forever, and didn’t return until the next day for another burst of connection. 

It was hailed as a perfect social media—no endless scrolling, no ads, no payment, no self-indulgence, no manipulation. But without any of this, the existence of an app is threatened. The app that was based on non-addictive user patterns and offered no payed tiers, left the popular sphere just as quickly as it came in. 

The problem? The app demanded neither the user’s time nor their money. Furthermore, the structure of the app forced its users to see the monotony of their daily lives, as it cuts out the ability to curate one’s life and their image. Users had to admit to the public just how often they were sitting at their desks or laying in bed. Even more contempt was held for those who purposefully delayed taking their BeReal until they were doing something fun or interesting later on in the day.

And so, it died off. 

I was speaking to a start-up founder at a party the other day, and he was explaining his solution around this dilemma. He resolved to make a curated music streaming service with a higher price point that didn’t suck the user into scrolling through algorithmic recommendations (I listened to Taylor Swift’s All Too Well 10 Minute Version a couple times last year and it has yet to leave my Spotify homepage). He wants his users to spend less time on the app, less scrolling in search of what tempting recommendation might appear to them, and eliminate the chaotic tsunami of choice. When he told me this, my reaction was suspicious: How do you know you can make a product that valuable, and market it to the masses? You think you can beat out Spotify, Apple Music, even Tidal? And ask them to pay more, for music they might not even know?

What I failed to recognize here was that his goal wasn’t to cater to the masses, or to compete with major corporations who capture our attention so well. This proposition was for an alternative, smaller market. One he knew well, who was searching for a different option, unwilling to relinquish themselves to the endless scroll, and unsatisfied with the current landscape. A large part of the user market is crying out for an end to this predatory algorithmic scheme. But what does the user want? They don’t know, but they want you to provide it to them.

If we look at the numbers, it would appear that users are indeed complacent in the trap of the algorithm. 95% of teens use Youtube regularly, 62% are on Instagram, and 67% scroll through TikTok, 16% of them report to use it constantly. Is it these very users who are slumped into their own endless scroll, crying out for when it will end?

The mass of users are certainly not voting through their usage, but this is not to say there isn’t space in the market for less predatory media. The solution is the micro. Our products no longer have to pander to a global audience, we no longer have to satisfy users from all demographics, age-ranges, and tax brackets. Our culture is so ingratiated with technology that it isn’t a matter of if we will use, but what.

There is an audience who wants efficiency, not an infinite dopamine boost. The user who wants to fill a need as seamlessly as possible. The new age of product must cater to the niche. To find an audience that is lacking a product and will vie for its existence. The ethical duty of the developer is to build a product that functions as efficiently as possible; this is a contribution to our culture of productivity, and extends this virtue to your users. To feed the masses cannot be done without exploiting the basic indulgences in which we are prone to succumb.

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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