As Google tries to boost its social market share with its new Google+ network — which just got some Facebook-style games designed to increase engagement — and Twitter adding new activity streams to pull users in, and Facebook trying to become the one network that rules them all, social-media fatigue seems to be an increasingly likely outcome. Some are already complaining about the number of directions they are being pulled in when it comes to social content-sharing, and cartoonist Scott Adams recently argued that all this constant stimulation is actually getting in the way of true creativity. Are we amusing ourselves to death online, and if so, what is the cure?
The idea of amusing ourselves to death comes from author Neil Postman, who wrote a book by the same name in 1985, in which he argued that instead of being oppressed by dictators the way George Orwell imagined it in his novel 1984, North American society was instead being dulled into insensitivity by television — in the same way that Aldous Huxley imagined a society addicted to a soporific drug called “soma,” in his book A Brave New World. For Postman, even television news was a form of entertainment rather than something that would actually help people become informed.
So are social networks and social media just another time-killing form of entertainment that gets in the way of the “real world” — and thereby prevents us from either raising serious issues or engaging with the world in a creative way?
Are we wasting our “cognitive surplus?”
There are certainly aspects of that in Facebook, with games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars that consume thousands of hours of potentially productive time — something Google+ has now bought into as well with its addition of games like Angry Birds and Bejewelled. Media analyst and journalism professor Clay Shirky has written about the “cognitive surplus” that comes when people start collaborating in various ways online instead of just watching television. But what happens when all that free time and brainpower is sucked up by Angry Birds? Are we wasting our cognitive surplus?
Twitter can suffer from similar problems, although games aren’t really a part of the picture (at least not yet). Amusing or not-so-amusing hashtags often take over the network, and many people are happy using their streams to link to the latest hilarious video from College Humor or to post cat photos or animated GIFs — something that has also begun to take over Google+, much to the annoyance of some users.
There’s another issue that some social-media users (including me) have noticed as well, and that’s a profusion of same-ness on all these competing networks. Checking Twitter and Facebook and Google+ often involves seeing dozens of the same posts and links and videos repeated over and over — posts and links that also show up in Flipboard and Zite and News360 and Paper.li and other “smart aggregators” or filtering services. In many cases, that’s because these services are drawing from the same sources, and there is a lack of “serendipity” or randomness in what they produce (Stumbleupon seems to be one of the few services that is designed in some ways to generate randomness).
Wasting time existed before social media
The repetitive nature of much social media is a flaw that smarter filters or better algorithms (combined with human editors and curators) can presumably fix. But what about the “amusing ourselves to death” problem? Despite Scott Adams’ concern — and similar fears expressed recently by singer-songwriter John Mayer, who argued that young artists should stay away from social media because it will interfere with their creativity — I think this sort of worry is probably overblown.
Do some people waste time on social networks? Sure they do, just like they used to waste time by watching television, or reading trashy romance novels, or (as Adams notes) staring out the window. Human beings have an incredible ability to avoid work or things that require concentration and social media has definitely fed into that. And what former Googler Chris Sacca has called the “dopamine hit” of seeing your tweets retweeted or favorited — or your photos “liked” or commented on, as blogger Dave Pell recently wrote about — makes that very difficult to resist. It’s easy to spend hours in this back-and-forth on Twitter or Google+, without actually achieving much of anything.
That said, however, events like the uprisings in Egypt and Libya — and even incidents like the London riots, where social media has been implicated in the spread of violence and disorder and a crackdown is being considered by the British government — show that social networks can be powerful forces in bringing important issues to light as well. Twitter and Google+ and Facebook may not be the places to have a long or thoughtful discussion of these issues, but they can certainly broadcast them to many more people. And is Twitter any worse at giving the full picture of such events than the TV news or many mainstream newspapers and other media sources? Not really.
In the end, social media is just like many other aspects of our modern lives, whether it’s 500 channels of mindless drivel on television or shelves filled with unhealthy junk food at the grocery store — while it may be easy to get consumed by those things because they are easy and seem fulfilling, it’s often worthwhile to step away and try something else. That’s not something an algorithm can fix; it’s a skill we need to learn, as online legend Howard Rheingold recently argued in a response to a Britannica piece about the dangers of multi-tasking. Some will learn it, and others won’t.