Why You Should Become a Dopamine Dealer


Before I begin here, it’s worth noting (if you’ve never read any of my posts on the subject) that I have serious concerns and dislikes when it comes to social media. I just don’t think it’s all that good for us on the whole. Sure, there are some good parts, but the entire system feels broken. I mean, when you read articles about how social media companies basically exploit brain chemistry and dopamine in order to create an addiction to your device, you really have to ponder just what the hell is going on in the world.

So take what I’m about to say with a huge grain of salt, or tongue in cheek.

Since social media, broken as it may be, isn’t going away anytime soon (and remains a major tool in any writer’s promotional toolkit), you have to think like a dopamine dealer if you want to amass a following.

Dopamine is a chemical circulating in our brains. At its simplest, it gives us a feeling of pleasure when a certain event happens. It’s useful when training people to perform certain tasks, as people will do quite a bit to get that next hit of dopamine. If, for example, you get a piece of chocolate when you clean your room, you might clean your room more often to gain that reward. And if someone starts messing with you and doles out that reward on an unpredictable schedule, your brain will remain engaged trying to figure out how to get the next dopamine hit. Do I need to clean better? Harder? More or less often? Give me my reward dammit! Ah, there it is. Sweet satisfaction. For a moment, until the craving hits again.

This is a gross over-simplification, of course. There’s a lot more to dopamine than this and it plays a large role in some pretty serious brain diseases like Parkinson’s disease, so it’s not all fun and games.

Casinos and carnival games have long exploited our dopamine-loving brains. All the bells and whistles, the anticipation of winning, the agony of losing, and the hope that you just might win the next time all serve to keep you at the craps table or trying to win the big teddy bear just a little bit longer. When you win, you get your “fix,” and when you lose, you want to do anything to get that fix back.

Social media companies act like casinos these days. They keep tweaking their algorithms so that you never know when you’re going to get a “like.” You post a great picture and it gets a ton of likes. A similar picture posted the next week doesn’t get the likes. Why? You don’t know, but it’s probably because the app is messing with you. It hid your post from people, or found some other way to keep you from getting those likes you crave. Every time there’s an update of some sort on your post you’re happy. When the crickets chirp, you’re bummed. This is what keeps you checking your phone mindlessly all day seeking that next dopamine hit.

A normal person would say, “Screw it,” and walk away. But we’re not normal. We’re all governed by our dopamine-craving brains. We want likes, dammit! So it’s back to the drawing board to craft another image or post. Maybe this one gets more likes than the first! Your brain swims in dopamine, feeling good. You can see how this chase continues, ad infinitum, until you wise up and walk away. Trouble is, no one is walking away.

So where am I going with this? Here we are. If no one is giving up on this foolishness, and authors are expected to fully engage with this addiction-peddling nonsense, then you might as well become a dopamine dealer.

What, exactly, is a dopamine dealer? No, I’m not suggesting you don a trench coat and head to the nearest alley to peddle drugs. No, no, no, absolutely not. But tweaking some people’s brains in the virtual world? That may be fair game.

Here’s the deal. If you love your dopamine hits (and we all do, so don’t bother denying it), it’s safe to assume that others want theirs, as well. So give it to them. In practice, this means interacting with other people’s posts. Give them the likes and comments that they so desperately crave.

I feel just as odd as the next introvert about liking or commenting on a post from someone I don’t know. I’m not super comfortable jumping into conversations on Twitter if I don’t know the people involved. But that’s the name of the game. As long as what you have to say contributes to the conversation, go ahead. Like their post and say something useful. Follow people who post things you enjoy. The poster gets their dopamine hit and they may give you one back.

Sure, it’s great if you can post some awesome content of your own, but let’s look at a quick case study. If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve seen those Twitter accounts with 100k+ followers whose postings are nothing but retweets of other content. They rarely, if ever, post anything original. Instead, they focus on dopamine dealing.

They retweet every piece of book promo they come across. This, in turn, gives the original poster a dopamine hit. They’re so happy to see their book promo being retweeted by a “big” account! What happens? They follow the big account in the hope of another retweet. They’re seeking that next dopamine hit! Sometimes they’ll get it, sometimes not. But having gotten that positive hit once, they’re more than willing to try for the next one by following the big account.

Now do you see how some of these accounts get so many followers, without ever having an original thought of their own? Yep. That’s how it’s done. It’s all based on manipulating people’s brain chemistry. Sad, but true.

I’m not saying you should become a retweeter-only account. God knows, they’re really boring to read. And I know of some agents and editors who will not take them seriously when considering your social media credibility. (And rightly so. These “followers” aren’t really engaged with the content on the page, they’re simply slaves to their brains, chasing a hit.) But you probably should give people their dopamine fix by following, liking, and commenting on their posts. (And you can retweet when you find something worthy, just don’t abuse it.)

As much as I hate to admit it, when it comes to social media, sometimes the best policy to grow your reach is, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Give in an become a dopamine dealer. Give the people what they want, and maybe they’ll reciprocate. If nothing else, you’ll have made some other people’s brains very happy.

(Photo courtesy of rawpixel)

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