(Or: How To Take Control of Your Online Life Without Burning Your Hand on The Stove)
For the amount that Social Media has come to dominate many of our everyday lives, we know precious little about what it’s doing to us.
Though at times it’s unnervingly easy to forget what life was like before social media, it has not really been around for all that long.
Nearly forgotten as they are, the two sites that first started to bring online social networks into the mainstream, Friendster and Myspace, didn’t even launch until 2002 and 2003 respectively.
Facebook launched one year later, in 2004. It is now used by roughly 75% of Americans – almost 50% of whom check it before they get out of bed in the morning, and 30% of whom use it as a primary news source.
2014 will mark its 10th anniversary. And still, so many of us don’t know quite what we’re doing with it yet. I know I’m still just figuring it out, and I’ve been on the service since 2008.
A lot of the issues we have with these services are understandable. We are after all, the first generations to be become “digitally literate.” And although they all have their own guidelines, none of these sites comes with a manual.
Ten years is also such a short while in the scheme of things, that there are few rigorous studies on what effect our usage is having on our productivity, incomes, mental health, life satisfaction, friendships, happiness, job prospects, and general well-being.
So what should one do in the face of such limited evidence? Read what’s available, and then run your own experiments, of course! Perhaps 2014 can be the year you change your strategy for the better.
How to Use (And Not Use) Social Media: Trial By Fire
Around Thanksgiving, I decided that I would learn by putting my hand directly on the stove.
I resolved to spend what downtime I had between December 2013 and January 2014 using Facebook in the worst way I could possibly imagine: Constantly. Also: By interacting with my peers on Facebook as fully, as freely – and as courteously – as I would in real life.
The results were as hit-or-miss as you might expect from a mode of communication that throws near-strangers of significantly different worldviews and levels of education together, then goads the ego by making conversations public, and encourages instant interaction, all while removing any semblance of tone or context.
Even when these conversations went far better than the odds would have me expect, one thing remained clear: We all wasted whole lot of time that might have been better spent on far more satisfying social interactions.
I also decided that once my experiment was over, I would adopt an all-new personal social media policy beginning January 1st, based on both what I had learned by placing my hand on the stove, and on what evidence I could find about how we might best use these new tools.
So to that end, here’s a survey of the current research I found on what social media is doing to us.
Misery Loves (Virtual) Company
To put it bluntly: There is a startlingly high correlation between high unhappiness and high use of social media.
If this sounds a bit sensationalistic and technophobic at first, please take a moment to think of how you felt in all those moments that you’ve been most neurotically glued to your Facebook or Twitter feeds… and then try to tell the researchers that they’re wrong.
At least one 2013 study of college-aged users showed that the people who used social media the most reported feeling lonely the most often, and satisfied with their lives the least often.
This mirrors the results of many other studies, some of which go back as far as 1998 and survey Web use in general. Reading through them, one comes away with a strong sense that ironically enough, both connectedness and happiness tend to go down with heavy use of “the social web.”
By now, some of your critical thinking circuits may be tingling: “Wait just a damn second, internet writer guy! Isn’t it likely that the people who used social media the most were simply the one who were the most lonely to begin with?”
That’s a reasonable question, to which some scientists reply: “Yeah, probs. Looks that way, dunnit?”
To be more accurate, what they actually wrote in their 2009 abstract was:
“This study showed that individuals who were lonely or did not have good social skills could develop strong compulsive Internet use behaviors resulting in negative life outcomes [e.g., harming other significant activities such as work, school, or significant relationships] instead of relieving their original problems. Such augmented negative outcomes were expected to isolate individuals from healthy social activities and lead them into more loneliness.”
Ouch. That one is worth going back and reading again.
The already lonely, however, aren’t the only ones who seem to suffer. In her survey of the available research, New Yorker contributor Maria Konnikova writes that:
“Lonelier people weren’t inherently more likely to go online…a recent review of some seventy-five studies concluded that ‘users of Facebook do not differ in most personality traits from nonusers of Facebook’…But, somehow, the Internet seemed to make them feel more alienated.”
(However, I’d add that it’s not quite clear how much credence modern scientists should lend to the idea of fixed “personality traits” to begin with.)
In any event, it probably doesn’t help matters much that we’re all playing in a social environment where the heaviest users already tend to be the loneliest, most self-destructive, and the least socially skilled. All other factors aside, some of that’s got to rub off on a person – even the best of us.
Broad Strokes: Best and Worst Practices For Your Social Media Use
Later in this issue, we’ll get into some evidence-based strategies for how to use social media to get your art or music out into the world. But first things first: How to handle the world at our own doorsteps.
The best available evidence to date suggests that there are probably two worst ways to use social media. One of them is to use peer-focused social media sites Passively.
A 2013 study shows that those who spent most of their social media time passively, simply scanning posts and clicking on images of others, tended to report a significant increase in feelings of envy and frustration.
Those who did the same kind of thing with the posts of romantic partners experienced high rates of jealousy. And related studies show that these kinds of passive behaviors lead to a state of diffuse, meandering attention that engenders intense feelings of boredom and disconnectedness.
Of course, there’s again a chicken-and-egg question here: Does it work the other way around as well? Do jealous feelings lead to jealous behaviors too? Does “disconnection” itself lead to behaviors that make people feel even more disconnected?
Well, probably. But even if so, it’s hard to disregard the suggestion that eliminating these behaviors is likely to help a person to stop feeding those feelings, and from entering into a spiral of negative reinforcement..
Fortunately, those social media users in these studies who actively posted pictures, shared updates and engaged in light, pleasant interactions, didn’t have things nearly so bad. But there can be just as many costs in overuse.
The Costs of Staying “Connected”
No word yet unfortunately, about what effect one of the other most common Facebook pastimes, arguing about politics, has on human health.
Still, the habit that some of us have for needlessly turning conversations — particularly around issues of established science, basic economics or mere personal preference — into political worldview arguments of near-religious fervor, might be one of many factors that’s been costing all of us a big chunk of change in recent years:
First, depending on the field, anywhere from 40% to 90% of employers are now using social media to screen candidates. In one study, at least 65% of them say they use these platforms to investigate “whether the candidate presents himself/herself professionally.”
In a smaller study, 69% of employers said that they’ve rejected candidates based on something they’ve seen on social media. (Although on the bright side, 68% also said they’ve hired someone because of something they’ve seen on social media.)
One patently obvious discovery to make is that the more negative the postings, the greater the damage is, from a work and opportunity perspective.
And it’s not just conventional job-seekers losing out from these social missteps, either. It’s musicians who are losing gigs from over-sharing as well.
Musician and educator Adam Small recounts seeing friends and colleagues lose work by posting scathing remarks about concerts that they had just attended, publicly insulting living legends in their field, or spewing tin-foil hat political conspiracy theories.
I know that I’ve practically sworn off giving work or coverage to certain colleagues, not because their political opinions have been different than mine, but only because of just how arrogant and intolerant they’ve been when confronted with reasonable opposing viewpoints or new facts and information.
“You don’t have to censor yourself in life,” Small writes. “Just on social media. You can still go out to see your friend’s show and talk about how the aliens are controlling us and how Bach is overrated.”
He has a point. At least in those environments, there’s tone, context, and some degree of privacy.
On top of all this, there are the analysts who suggest our constant social media distractions are sucking $650 billion each year of extra productivity out of the economy.
(This sounds like a helluva lot until you realize it’s just about 0.5% of our national GDP. Not nearly as bad as I expected, to be honest. Some days, I think it must be a low-ball estimate.)
There’s a contrary case to be made that the productive time we lose to social media is merely time we would have spent distracting ourselves with something else in years past: Smoke breaks, trips to the water cooler, eBay addictions, or drinking Scotch at work à la Mad Men.
But even taking this into account, social media has a complication that just isn’t there in most other distractions: It acts as a stand-in for real social connection, person-to-person interaction, and the ongoing refinement of meaningful social skills.
If there’s one thing science can tell us that we already knew, it’s that spending real time with real friends in real life is one of the best things your can do for real happiness. If there’s second thing, it’s that nothing is better for your career than developing a robust real-life social network, filled with the kinds of people you always wanted to meet.
You don’t really need me to tell you that most of your social media interactions feel almost nothing like real social interactions. Or that your social media network, despite its pretensions, is not your real-world social network.
Your real-world social network is comprised of the people who would be interested to hear your voice on the phone, eager to respond to your personal email, and who, given a halfway decent excuse and a rare hole in their schedule, would be excited to see you in person.
Better Ways To Use Social Media
There is no “right” way to use social media sites like Facebook.
For some people, the best amount is going to be none at all. Cal Newport of Study Hacks writes convincingly about why he hasn’t joined Facebook – and why that hasn’t done him any harm.
In responding to the four most common arguments he hears for joining the site, Newport writes:
“My time and attention is valuable. If some company wants to make money off me using their service, they better have a compelling pitch for why it’s worth me taking away time and attention from my work, family and friends — even if just temporarily…
“Once you get into the habit of seeking this distraction when temporarily bored, your ability to concentrate during other times will be reduced. If I start checking Facebook during my downtime, in other words, I’m convinced that the overall quality and quantity of time I can spend doing hard things — like writing or solving proofs — will, rather quickly, begin to decrease…
“Furthermore, the idea that you can restrict your access to this addictive service to only downtime is naive. Think about the behavior of people you know: Facebook checking soon pervades all areas of your life, including those times when, in a pre-Facebook era, you would be interacting with family or friends. “You can access Facebook anywhere!”, in other words, is not the right way to persuade me.
For others, there will always be good reasons to continue using these services:
For creators, social media can be a powerful way of distributing content and information about new events and new creations.
For information fiends, a well-curated social media feed can be a great discovery engine, and a valuable supplement to the habit of going directly to your favorite media outlets.
Meanwhile, for social butterflies, these services can be an effective way to ping weak ties and keep casual connections going.
So, if you are going to use social media for these purposes, what are the best methods?
If you’re ready to find out, explore some of the best practices in our companion article “The Science of Effective Social Media Use (Artist’s Edition),” and consider re-evaluating your social media use for 2014. You know I’ll be.
10 years is long enough to have social media rule us, rather than the other way around.