With its vast kingdom of server farms and its army of great engineers, Facebook can crunch an almost incomprehensible amount of data at similarly incomprehensible speeds. The thing is: You (the user) don’t like it. The speed at which Facebook undertakes certain tasks, such as its “security check,” makes users uneasy, so the company serves up loading screens and progress reports, even though all of the number-crunching has already happened.
Facebook even confirmed as much to Fast Company, stating that “[w]hile our systems perform these checks at a much faster speed than people can actually see, it’s important that they understand what we do behind the scenes to protect their Facebook account.” The reason for the slowdown was to walk people through whatever process was being executed and make sure that they understood what was happening.
Many services online use similar tactics, using progress bars and spinning pinwheels to make processes appear to take longer. In other words, we’ve reached a point where computers works faster than human brains. Even if systems get faster and better at analyzing data or serving up requests, there is a limit to how much we trust them. We like to see the work being performed, even if it happens in one tenth of the blink of an eye.
“Artificial waiting,” as it’s known, is employed for plenty of instantaneous functions like “checking credit” or “comparing prices” or “reticulating splines.” It makes users feel more comfortable to think that a lot of work is happening behind the scenes even though load times are quickly becoming a thing of the past for everything that’s not video.
So the next time you see a progress bar, have fun wondering whether the computer is actually working, or whether it’s taunting your dumb idiot human brain.