In the context of user interfaces, "scrolling" refers to the vertical or horizontal shifting of content across a display.
So if you're playing a side-scroller video game like old-school Nintendo offerings, you typically start on the left side of the screen and as you progress toward the right side, the background scrolls so that more content, more of the in-game environment, is revealed.
In the online world, we scroll through the content of webpages, usually top to bottom, with content further down the page being revealed as we move our cursors or scrollbars downward.
Like in video games, this is all artificial "skeuomorphism" meant to imply physical space: that content isn't actually below anything, just as the landscape revealed in a video game doesn't actually exist just off the screen.
Our brains are accustomed to physical spaces and the rules inherent in that physicality, however, and scrolling allows us to engage with more content than will fit on a single display in an intuitive way that plays into those real-world assumptions.
In smartphone apps, we usually scroll down with our thumbs or fingers, moving the "page" upward to get to the content “below,” before turning to another metaphorical page. But in recent years, a UI innovation developed in 2006 has become common enough that most smartphone apps and many webpages have adopted it.
"Infinite scroll" refers to a mechanism by which a digital page can seem to go on and on, essentially forever.
In practice, this means when you're looking through photos on Instagram or perusing a blog on the web, when you reach the bottom of the digital page, instead of having to click a button to load another page, that next page loads automatically on what appears to be the same page you're already exploring.
The experience of this makes it seem like all these apps and an increasing number of webpages are just endless, single pages of content, and that's the point.
Research has shown that when we engage with content in this way, we're less inclined to feel like we've finished something—we don't have any natural, physical-seeming milestones or endpoints—and consequently we're more likely to stick around and keep scrolling, gorging on content rather than subconsciously thinking, "Okay, one page is enough," and moving on to something else.
The man who came up with the infinite scroll interface, Aza Raskin, has since apologized for bringing this interface option into the world, as he believes it wastes the equivalent of about 200,000 human lifetimes per day because of how it incentivizes us to keep scrolling and consuming content way past what we would otherwise consider to be sufficient.
This is not the only in-app element—and this is true of social media apps in particular—designed to be addictive, intentionally sucking up users' time in order to serve them more ads. But there is an unusual amount of research suggesting infinite scroll UIs are especially pernicious, even compared to the other tricks and strategies commonly utilized. That's partly the consequence of how this element is often implemented, and partly the consequence of how we respond to seemingly limitless slot-machine-like mechanisms (and their associated psychological triggers) carried around in our pockets each day.
These elements grab us from the outset, but also cause us to develop habits that reinforce our propensity for scrolling and consuming the more we engage with them.
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