Author Archives: Taylor Hatmaker

Research finds heavy Facebook users make impaired decisions like drug addicts

Researchers at Michigan State University are exploring the idea that there’s more to “social media addiction” than casual joking about being too online might suggest. Their paper, titled “Excessive social media users demonstrate impaired decision making in the Iowa Gambling Task” (Meshi, Elizarova, Bender and Verdejo-Garcia) and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, indicates that people who use social media sites heavily actually display some of the behavioral hallmarks of someone addicted to cocaine or heroin.

The study asked 71 participants to first rate their own Facebook usage with a measure known as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. The study subjects then went on to complete something called the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a classic research tool that evaluates impaired decision making. The IGT presents participants with four virtual decks of cards associated with rewards or punishments and asks them to choose cards from the decks to maximize their virtual winnings. As the study explains, “Participants are also informed that some decks are better than others and that if they want to do well, they should avoid the bad decks and choose cards from the good decks.”

What the researchers found was telling. Study participants who self-reported as excessive Facebook users actually performed worse than their peers on the IGT, frequenting the two “bad” decks that offer immediate gains but ultimate result in losses. That difference in behavior was statistically significant in the latter portion of the IGT, when a participant has had ample time to observe the deck’s patterns and knows which decks present the greatest risk.

The IGT has been used to study everything from patients with frontal lobe brain injuries to heroin addicts, but using it as a measure to examine social media addicts is novel. Along with deeper, structural research, it’s clear that researchers can apply to social media users much of the existing methodological framework for learning about substance addiction.

The study is narrow, but interesting, and offers a few paths for follow-up research. As the researchers recognize, in an ideal study, the researchers could actually observe participants’ social media usage and sort them into categories of high or low social media usage based on behavior rather than a survey they fill out.

Future research could also delve more deeply into excessive users across different social networks. The study only looked at Facebook use, “because it is currently the most widely used [social network] around the world,” but one could expect to see similar results with the billion-plus monthly Instagram and potentially the substantially smaller portion of people on Twitter.

Ultimately, we know that social media is shifting human behavior and potentially its neurological underpinnings, we just don’t know the extent of it — yet. Due to the methodical nature of behavioral research and the often extremely protracted process of publishing it, we likely won’t know for years to come the results of studies conducted now. Still, as this study proves, there are researchers at work examining how social media is impacting our brains and our behavior — we just might not be able to see the big picture for some time.

The queer dating app Her expands with curated community spaces

After carving out a niche as the first dating app by and for queer women, Her is broadening its mission. Today, the app formerly known as Dattch is launching a Communities feature — kind of like a set of mini queer subreddits — to let people connect around interests and identity as a group.

“We spent the past three years bringing people together in one on one conversations and introductions — communities is about taking it beyond the one on one,” Her founder Robyn Exton told TechCrunch.

“We started paying attention to the number of queer spaces that are closing,” Exton said, noting that women’s centers, lesbian bars, queer bookshops and other queer IRL spaces are closing in record numbers in recent years. “We actually think they’re needed more than ever.”

Her’s new Communities feature aims to create a digital version of those collective queer spaces, letting users connect with interest and identity-based groups, with message boards custom built for Her’s unique user base. Users can post content in Communities or follow another person’s feed to stay up to date on what’s going in the Her universe.

A curated starter pack of Communities launches today, though Exton plans to add more over time with the potential for user-generated Communities and pop-ups around specific events. The first set includes a space for queer women of color, one centered around mindfulness and wellbeing and another for news and entertainment, among others.

The categories are pretty broad for now, but it sounds like Her plans to adapt Communities to whatever its users end up wanting. That flexibility coupled with Exton’s commitment to maintaining a space that’s “so ragingly queer” set Her apart from dating apps that generally fumble any dating experience that isn’t explicitly for straight people or gay men.

Her also plans to push toward internationalization in 2018 to grow its 3 million registered users. The app is already live in 55 countries and its largest non-English speaking markets are France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines. The app will host events tailored toward each of those locales in the coming year.

Just in time for Pride Month, Her is also launching a rebrand aimed at making the app more inclusive and reflective of what Exton calls “the future of fluidity that we believe in.”

“Our community and our audience has changed hugely, even in the last three years,” Exton said. “We needed to reflect that as a brand.”

According to Exton, there’s been a massive spike in Her users under the age of 29 describing their gender as non-binary or their sexuality as pansexual — a shift reflective of language and identity evolution in the queer community at large. The language of the rebrand describes a vision in which “sexuality and gender are found on a spectrum, where labels remain but are not set in stone.”

Exton hopes that Communities will create meaningful spaces in which Her users can gather and explore their own identities as they evolve and change. “So much queerness that happens inside of Her,” Exton said. “People describe it as feeling like you’re coming home.”

Hello Alfred raises $40M to bring hotel-style hospitality to more households

New York-based chore wizard Hello Alfred is about expand its mission to make life easier, one to-do list at a time. The company commands a small army of thoroughly trained home helpers who take care of domestic tasks like sorting mail, taking out the trash and picking up groceries. Those helpers pop by on a weekly basis, and subscribers pay a monthly subscription fee to free their lives of little things that tend to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Now, with a new $40 million Series B round, Hello Alfred is set to scale. The round was led by investors including real estate developers Divco West and Invesco. Spark Capital and New Enterprise Associates (NEA) also participated in the $40 million round after previously investing in the company. The company won our Startup Battlefield at Disrupt in 2014, back when it was just “Alfred .”

With its Series B, Hello Alfred will execute its plan to expand from serving 10,000 homes (some in Alfred partnered apartment buildings) to serving 100,000 by the end of the year. The company also intends to invest further in its technology data operations and its own line of home goods, known as Alfred Home Essentials.

Hello Alfred began in New York and currently operates in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles with planned launches in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Portland, Raleigh and San Jose on the horizon. The company also intends to double the size of its team in 2018 while continuing to expand partnerships with vendors and products and real estate developers that fit its brand.

While many startups work to to automate away the human aspect of their business, Hello Alfred is all about the human touch. Instead of relying on contractors à la TaskRabbit or so many other services in the on-demand economy, Hello Alfred’s “Home Managers” are all full-time W-2 employees. Those workers get to know their clients, developing familiarity that ideally leads to even better hospitality over time.

Another thing that sets Hello Alfred apart: It’s profitable. The company opted to scale slowly, paying employee salary out of the profits it’s been generating since launch. With investors interested and a sustainable business model that could do without them anyway, Hello Alfred seems to be hitting its stride.