Conscious design: our impact on hyper-individualism

Matthijs Langendijk
8 min readMay 21, 2024

Part of a creative’s life is making decisions that impact how apps, websites and online services are used by millions and millions every single day. It’s a big responsibility, if you think of it. One small design choice can have a massive amount of impact, both good and bad. In this blog we’ll walk through some of the impact creatives can make on a specific topic: hyper-individualism.

This blog is created as a collaboration between Monika Rutten and me. We’ve chatted a lot on this topic and decided to write a blog about it. Most of the thoughts from this blog are coming directly from chatting together about a hyper-individualistic world.

What exactly is hyper-individualism?

Starting off, what exactly is hyper-individualism? Looking purely at the definition coming from Wikipedia, it says hyper-individualism is: ‘A tendency for people to act in a highly individual way, without regard to society’. Now, that can be taken into many different ways — and in fact can be outed in many different ways. The key of it though, is that a person behaves and navigates around their life with no real regard for the people around them. It’s all focused on ‘me me me’.

Identified causes

Where a creative’s design comes into play, are some of the causes of a person behaving in a hyper-individualistic way. The user experience and interface of apps and websites we build, the specific features and how they are created, algorithms as well; all have a big impact on how people behave.

My own internet corner

One of the biggest tell-tale signs of how our designs, and specifically social media (but also streaming services, for example), impact hyper-individualism; is the fact that everything is personalised. I have my own piece of the internet, everywhere I go. If I log in to Facebook, LinkedIn or Netflix, I’m greeted with my name first. With my picture. Facebook is even asking me specifically what I have been up to, asking me to post about it. All of that drives a very hyper-individualistic approach, since the focus is on ‘me’ every single time.

Social media in general is a massive driving factor of hyper-individualism. Because what is social media about? It’s about showing yourself in the best light possible. People aren’t posting about the hardships and the sad moments alone at night. People post about the best, most happy moments. It’s all about comparing yourself to others around you. It focuses on you, or rather on ‘me’ showcasing the best version of myself.

Forced engagement

A clear example of that ‘me’ approach is the BeReal social media platform. Launched in just 2020, it’s taken the world by storm with a radically different approach from the likes of e.g. Facebook. With BeReal, you can only post a single photo per day. The trick though, is that you cannot decide at which moment you take or share that photo. You live at the mercy of the BeReal app, which sends you a notification the moment it is time to take and share a photo. And you only get 2 minutes to do it, too! It makes for a very candid way of showing what your life is like.

What is interesting of BeReal’s approach though, is that you can only see what others are posting if you yourself also share photo’s. It’s a form of forced engagement that really ties into wanting to compare your own life to others. Because how else are you going to see what’s going on with your peers if you’re not posting yourself? It’s simply not possible because of the design choice made.

This designed behaviour further drives a focus on hyper-individualism. Users of the BeReal app live at the mercy of the 2 minute notification… I wonder what kind of stress that might give to a person? Expecting a notification at any time of the day, and needing to be ready to perform and show the best version of yourself at that day. Because you want to look good for the others seeing your photo, of course.

A sense of belonging

The case of BeReal is driven from a very simple thing that’s in the DNA of most: a sense of belonging. While chatting, Monika explained a clear example. While moving from Czechia to the Netherlands, she was looking for a way to stay in touch with friends back in the Czech Republic. Up until that point she had been using regular text messages over SMS to keep up. However, after a while, suddenly everything had to be done via Whatsapp. And of course she made the switch, as she wanted to stay in touch — to stay up to date with her friends in another country. She wanted to still belong.

That sense of belonging is what’s causing a lot of the hyper-individualistic world as we see it today. Not because of the sense of belonging itself, but rather because of the things needed to feel that sense. You can’t really get around social media anymore. Everybody lives online, so you do too. And that means you’re forced to engage with platforms in order to still feel that sense of belonging. You need to be on TikTok, on Snapchat, on BeReal. And that means you need to post, to showcase yourself, to focus on bringing the best of yourself every day. Otherwise, can you really feel that sense of belonging, when you’re not online at the part where all your friends are?

The effects of hyper-individualism

Now that we’ve looked at some of the causes, it’s time to look at some of the effects. Because all that ‘me me me’ thinking certainly has an effect on people. And not just in an online environment. A lot of it translates to the ‘offline’ world as well.

Ecological impact

Starting out with maybe an odd one, but something that people often overlook. We may not realise it, but this hyper-individualistic approach actually has a big ecological impact. With every piece of content online requiring to be personalised, it requires a lot of datacentres and servers to be able to maintain and serve that content. Let alone the massive amounts of photo’s and video’s that are uploaded every single day. Because people are effectively forced to create content, the amount of data that needs to be stored keeps growing and growing at an exponential rate. We all know that datacentres don’t grow on trees, they have to be built. Maintained. And of course powered by (hopefully green) energy. The design choices made to make apps, websites and platforms what they are today, have drastically changed the way we consume resources.

Lack of respect

Going back to the definition of hyper-individualism, people are a lot more focused on themselves and have a lack regard to those around them. One of the tell-tale signs for Monika was what she read on the news. In this specific case, tourists visiting Japan were harassing Geisha’s because they wanted to take selfies — obviously for those pictures to then be posted online for that ‘look at me’ feeling. Japan is now actually forced to take measures and ban tourists from visiting certain places. Hyper-individualism in its most clear example. Would this move from the Japanese government ever be needed if it wasn’t for the ‘me-approach’ of todays apps and websites?

Effect on younger generation

What also shouldn’t be forgotten is the impact on the younger generations. Younger people, after all, are a lot more impressionable when it comes to what’s happening around them. They are still growing up after all, taking learning from all that’s happening around them. Taking an example from social media, at the end of last and the beginning of this year, you couldn’t escape having a ‘Stanley Cup’. A reusable water bottle, but specifically from the Stanley company.

Now, no problem with people using reusable water bottles. In fact that’s something to be encouraged. What is interesting though, is the fact that social media brought this craze along. Suddenly you saw everyone, from your neighbour across the street, to that one famous person you like, with a Stanley Cup. And when young people see their idol posting pictures with something, they want to have it too. There is that sense of belonging again. ‘Look at me, I’m just like my idol’.

What we can do about it

Whether you are a designer, creative, or product owner involved in some way or another around how apps and websites are created — we can do something. That’s the most important thing to remember. We, collectively, have a lot of control over how features are built. And it’s about time we start being conscious of the effects our choices on UX, UI and specific features have on users.

Conscious of our designs and clients

It all starts by realising what the effects are of some of the choices we make. Luckily some of the effects of certain features and functionality have already been explained in this blog! Now that you’ve maybe become a bit more conscious of the effects, we can try to do something about it. Maybe that app you’re working on doesn’t need that social feature. Maybe you shouldn’t require your users to post something in order to gain access to additional functionality. Maybe you should say no, when you’re being asked to design, describe or build a certain feature that you know will have a certain effect on users. You have control over the things you’re designing, and with that you directly influence your end users. You contribute, either positively or negatively, to the current hyper-individualistic world.

It begins with you

Let’s face it. Corporations, especially the bigger ones, don’t really care about any of this. It’s money first, and it will likely stay like that until somebody does something about. The first moves are already being made, with the proposed TikTok bans in several countries around the world.

Until governments step up, you can do a lot yourself, too. Because, yes, it all starts with you. If you, and maybe your colleague decide to say no to a feature request, it means you’ve already made impact to certain users in a positive way. While it may seem insignificant, this bottom-up effect can go very quickly. Because your other colleagues, maybe your friends and family, can see the positive effects you make by saying no, by making conscious design decisions.

Change begins with you.

Concluding

We live in a hyper-individualised world. That much is clear. We can see the effects not just online, but also in our daily lives. Whether you’re walking in the supermarket trying to buy your dinner, or are visiting Japan as a tourist. People are focused on themselves, on ‘me me me’. And it’s not likely to change. Not unless we do something about it.

It starts with us, with you and me. If we become conscious of the designs we are making, the features we are developing, even the algorithms we are creating. We can say no to features where we know it contributes to hyper-individualism. And if we all do that, before you know it, change has happened.

--

--