This Motion Graphics Artist Explores Social Media as if it were a Drug Factory

It has been widespread knowledge for some years now that social media usage gives users dopamine highs. But if indeed social media functions like a drug, what would that drug’s production process be like? This is the central question behind UK-based motion graphics artist Chris Cousins in his latest work, Side Effects.

“Pervasive, malleable, ubiquitous – the global drug. Social media is tailor-made to soothe the anxieties of a population in turmoil, unite a society fractured by change. But as with any new drug, there can be side effects…”
– Chris Cousins


Created in Adobe After Effects, Side Effects takes you on a visual tour of a social media drug factory. Friendly emojis and messages are traded for metal machinery.

We sat down with Chris to get some further clarification.

THE PLUS: What sparked the idea for the video?
Chris Cousins:
The initial jolt that started this was a TED talkby Zeynep Tufekci. She talks about persuasion architectures delivered at scale, and about how the seemingly innocuous mechanisms developed by social media companies have the potential for real social harm and exploitation. 


TP: Can you tell us more about the concept?
Social media addiction – the effects on vulnerable individuals – is well known; but most of us are users to some degree, and the effect on a larger scale is unknown. The situation seemed similar to a bunch of experimental drugs, straight out of the lab, being dumped on the global population without any idea of the consequences. We have scant defences against the rewards of these drugs – the feelings of connection, admiration and acceptance are irresistible. The automated learning continually hones the drug to respond to our triggers making it ever more addictive – and effective. I’d been working on this for around two months, on and off, and finished the week the Facebook/CA scandal arrived, so the concept had a decent resonance with the audience.

TP: What’s the biggest side effect in your life you’ve noticed as a result of social media?
It’s hard to identify, as there’s little outside perspective. I certainly don’t want to come across as saying “Don’t trust this new evil thing!”, or pretending I have any answers. There’s some great outcomes from social media – speedy communication, being involved in remote friends lives, making connections with people through similar interests. And for getting work contacts it’s been invaluable. But there’s an ugly competitive lifestyle trap to fall into, and the distraction potential is unmatched.


TP: What are your thoughts about art as a means of raising awareness of such issues?
A concept expressed visually often has a magnified impact. You can have an issue explained verbally, but a purely visual statement lets you feel as well as understand an idea. You bypass certain filters in the viewer, and if it’s done well the concept feels almost obvious after you’ve ingested it. Here the sterile, factory-like environment and clinical machinery stand in total contrast to the cuddly, chummy messages expressed by these companies as they try to coax us in. Everyone feels personal attachments to their social media of choice, and they pretend we’re in a community – but in the end they’re all just factories, churning out what they’ve worked out will keep our attention the longest.

TP: Should we use social media less or stop using it altogether?
No, not at all, these are powerful tools and a fantastic resource.


TP: What do you hope will happen in the future regarding social media?
Humans are pretty adaptable – people are already seeing through the more obvious clickbait stories, and using fact-checking on obviously suspicious news stories that historically would have spread like wildfire. Ideally the generation that has grown up with this stuff will have developed more immunity. We just have to hope that, as a society and as a species, we are more inclined towards what benefits everyone over vanity and selfish interests.

TP: What’s the next project you’ve got lined up?
I’ve got some visuals to do for a tour coming up, it’s too soon to discuss details but it features flowers, colour, maths – and nothing even remotely mechanical.