Infinite scroll makes it harder for social media users to delineate what they wish to consume and what they actually consume. The opt out model and algorithm fine-tuning it makes use of is a reminder that users’ free participation means they are the product.
Infinite scroll is nothing new. It’s been a fixture of web design for over a decade now, and it’s hard to imagine social media without it.
It’s exactly what it sounds like, rather than clicking through pages, content loads as a user scrolls. Before infinite scroll was popularized, users would reach the end of a page and, if they wanted to see more, they had to click to a new one.
Much has been written about what infinite scroll is and exactly what it does to us. The consensus is that infinite scroll works like a little lever. Users pull it, and they receive a shot of dopamine. Because of how the brain works, that makes it addictive. Endless scrolling can be bad for your mental health, especially when you find yourself constantly scrolling through bad news.
Up until now, most of the discussion about endless scroll has been about more text and still image based content. Video platforms have taken longer to implement this staple of modern web-design, but with the rise of TikTok, it’s becoming more and more common.
YouTube has shorts, Instagram and Facebook have reels. They’re short, bite-sized pieces of video content, designed to be watched briefly before the user scrolls to the next one and the next one and the next one, and so on and so on.
Brains like infinite scroll because it provides an endless stream of stimulation, videos are even more stimulating than still images or text. That’s why it’s so easy to sink hours and hours into watching them.
There’s another reason that it’s so easy to open TikTok and suddenly realize that it’s been an hour.
In order to provide you with an endless stream of stimulating content, these platforms have to be constantly finding and retrieving it for you. In order for you to be interested in that content, it needs to know about your likes and dislikes. That’s where algorithms come in.
Algorithms are nothing new. An algorithm is just any procedural set of calculations, but in the context of social media, they basically take a guess at what you’re going to enjoy, based on things like past behaviour and demographic information. Platforms use algorithms for everything. They show you who you should follow, the photos you should like and the videos you should watch.
When it comes to infinite scroll based video content, the algorithm is particularly powerful. Take YouTube as an example. The majority of people watch videos from their recommended page. YouTube decides what to recommend to you based on its algorithm. YouTube’s newest feature, Shorts (TikToks but on Youtube, essentially) are also recommended to you by an algorithm.
The difference between watching a YouTube video and a YouTube Short is small, but it’s an important distinction when it comes to talking about how we consume the content that we consume. Users opt in to watching a YouTube video, they opt out of watching a YouTube short.
Opting in requires you to really want to watch something, opting out requires you to really not want to watch something. In my experience, that means I end up watching a lot of Shorts that I don’t find particularly interesting, enriching, or even correct.
It also makes it a lot easier for people to find and fully consume content designed to shape their ideologies. YouTube’s algorithm has been criticized in the past for pushing people towards the alt-right. Anyone who’s ever tried to watch sports highlights and then had their recommendations flooded with videos that have titles like “Blue Haired Feminist OWNED by Dude with a podcast!” can tell you that those claims have merit.
With traditional video recommendation, it was possible to just roll your eyes and decide not to watch any content that the all-knowing algorithm recommended. With infinite scroll video models, your eyes may roll but you’ll likely continue to scroll. It’s human nature to be curious, and more times than not it’s easier to see a 15-second video through to the end than it is to not finish it.