Social media has not only changed the way we interact and communicate, it’s changed the way we feel about the world and our place in it. Consequently, it can be empowering and beneficial in many ways. But there are some emotional and psychological components of social media that represent unintended consequences deserving of our attention. Is there a dystopian element to living in a virtual construct that is both within and beyond our control? Has our attention become so fragmented that we’re limiting our real friendships while connecting with people we’ll never really meet? And is our use of social media crowding out important information, and stifling creativity?
Decades ago the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed Dunbar’s Number, the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain meaningful social relationships. Based on his work with primates he deducted that the number in humans is around 150. Numbers larger than this, he concluded, destabilized the group by requiring more restrictive rules and norms to maintain cognitive order. Apes and other primates have a highly social nature (the Dunbar Number for apes hovers around 80); other than humans, primates generally maintain personalized contact through social grooming—literally cleaning another’s body. More squeamish by nature, humans developed spoken language, a somewhat lazy form of social grooming that doesn’t require touching. However, the spoken word has always been accompanied by body language. If language was developed over the past several hundred thousand years as a lazy form of social grooming, then the written word without benefit of body language is lazier still.
Only 7% of in-person communication is through the spoken or written word; the remaining 93% is through body language. So how can the disembodied word result in true communication? Sometimes it can: a telephone conversation, for example, allows emotional expression through nonverbal communications such as sighs and laughter. But most major social media tools convert our communications into keyword-based algorthims that revolve around things such as status changes, small or large; activities, boring or significant; or location, relevant or not. One could logically conclude that video accompanying the words would convey body language and greatly enhance social media as a communication tool, but that’s not the case with many of our social media communications. As the communications consultant Susan Tardanico observed, “social technologies have broken the barriers of time and space
Adding to the dilemma are the disparate models that define the various social media platforms. Facebook and similar “traditional” social media platforms are mostly symmetric and bidirectional in nature, somewhat replicating the natural give-and-take of information. Platforms such as Twitter are asymmetric, with those we “follow” and those who follow us, a much less orderly and natural environment. These competing models lead to a complicated communication mix that requires multi-platform users to devote more and more attention to the technology rather than the message. If Marshal McLuhan was correct in thinking that the medium is the message, then communications streaming within competing channels only serve to blur the intended message.
Here’s the potential problem: the quality of the information we ingest follows a basic U-curve; while increased information may at first increase our understanding of—and attention to—a communication, additional information rapidly becomes useless as our cognitive ability overloads and tails off. Add the distractions of multiple symmetric and asymmetric environments, and the odds of coherent communication further decline. One can conclude that narrowing the funnel to reach a smaller circle of people —closer to Dunbar’s Number—within a given social media platform will increase the quality of communication by decreasing the quantity of input. Such a regulated model, however, flies in the face of what social media is all about: an unregulated environment that rewards quantity and is ruled by the wisdom of the crowd. And while it’s relatively easy to narrow the funnel within a truly symmetric platform that puts up some opt-in firewalls, the fact is that most social media is asymmetric in nature, ranking user-generated content without preference to quality. As stated in a Microsoft-sponsored research paper titled Game-Theoretic Models of Information Overload in Social Networks, “this leads to a fundamental shortcoming of the online medium in replicating real-world ties: even though the time and frequency of updating oneself is in one’s own control, how much one hears from one particular friend is not. The lack of control [is part of] the broader difficulty of online social networks replicating offline relationships.”
Arguments can be made that social media challenges our sense of self. Simply put, the number of “likes” we get, either in the ubiquitous thumbs-up iconography or in a more general acceptance of our communications, is a form of middle school competition; there is power only in spreading content that commands attention. Operant conditioning theory dictates that we learn through the rewards or punishments for certain behaviors, changing our behaviors accordingly in an effort to survive. Since social media often rewards or punishes based on the wisdom of the crowd, our interactions can quickly succumb to the tyranny of the crowd—not unlike middle school.
Compounding the problems of competitiveness, many forms of social media don’t appeal to our better nature. As the social media scholar Danah Boyd puts it, “we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity, [finding] ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial to ourselves.” Boyd also writes about the double-edged sword she calls the “homophily” of social networks. Because people tend to connect to people like themselves, prejudice and bigotry are baked into our networks, closing access to views from people who have different perspectives and experiences.
All of this stimulation can produce considerable anxiety. A global study by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda found that many students around the world feel that going without media not only severed their connections to their friends, but it challenged their sense of self. “Students reported that how they use media shapes the way others think of them and the way they think about themselves,” the
study found. In this context, McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message becomes more personal and potentially ominous: how the message is received affects the self-image of the person—the medium—delivering it.
Paradoxically, social media consumption may lead to social isolation and gaps in our deepest emotional needs. We may all be more connected, but it’s from a distance; our connectivity is literally an out-of-body experience. “It’s a great psychological truth that if we don’t [know] how to be alone, we’ll always be lonely,” says Sherry Turkle, author of the book Alone Together. “When we’re always connected, we become dependent on others for validation in the most basic ways.” Creating the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship or intimacy leads to insecurity and isolation. It’s ironic that a smartphone can be isolating even while we’re out in public; access to our virtual connections takes away from actually experiencing the physical presence of other humans who are right beside us.
Then there’s the question of social media’s influence on creativity. Creativity requires periods of concentration and focus. When we’re consuming media we often lose the time for reflection, intellectual interactions, critical thinking, and—most important to the creative mind—imagination. A 2013 survey commissioned by Getty Images found that almost half of professional creatives have experienced a decline in their creative output; this is due, they report, to distractions in their everyday lives. The survey found that places of solitude—the commute to work, the shower, or exercising—inspire the most creativity. That’s not to say that creative people reject technology; to the contrary, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said that new tools and technologies allow them to be more creative in the workplace. But once again it boils down to a quality versus quantity question: does the ability to create more encourage us to be more creative?
The photographer Guy Tal writes in Landscape Photography Magazine about the threat of being disconnected from the physical world and sensory stimuli. “When it comes to the creation of significant works,” he writes, “some of the greatest creative breakthroughs in art and science can be attributed to individuals isolating themselves from the din of the social hive. The reason is simple: creativity is about bringing something novel into existence—something originating from the singular minds of unique individuals. Social groups rarely strive to do anything truly novel.”
It’s hard to imagine a world without social media, and there’s no doubt that social media technology can enhance our lives. The challenge is to create content that travels in the right company, disseminate it while knowing we ultimately can’t control its distribution, and discern when it’s time to tune out. As individuals and as marketers we need to deal with joining the communication stream without drowning in its turbulence. Every force has a tipping point, and recognizing the possible limits of technology is often how we get the most out of it. Living and working within a virtual world has its rewards and benefits—as long as we know when, and how, to step out of it.
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