Thursday 17 February 2011

Two months later: Still addicted

Well, it's been a couple of months since I returned to Facebook & Twitter after my one-month hiatus (plan here, results here). Time to reflect on  where I'm at now with my social network usage. As you may have guessed from the title & image, it's not going too well.

I am completely, hopelessly addicted to Facebook. I check it several times a day, eagerly checking for new notifications or comments in response to my contributions. The "twitchiness" of checking email, Twitter & Facebook several times a day is back. One of my conclusions was that Facebook has a value and that I miss it when I'm not there, and I fear that now I've given myself "permission" to go on Facebook, I've let myself get sucked in. I realize now that Facebook is designed to be addictive. Seeing the "Likes" on your posts is like popping pills that give you an amphetamine rush. The stream of new "notifications" is an intravenous drip delivering compliments and ego strokes directly into your psyche. 

I recently came across an interesting article on the Psychology of Social Media by Doug Firebaugh, which argues that there are 7 reasons we participate. It's written from a social media marketer's perspective but it makes some interesting points. Here's Doug's list (I combined a couple), with my own take on them:
  • We want to be acknowledged. Facebook is far more rewarding than blogging because if I post something, you don't have to comment for me to know you read it. You can hit Like, and people frequently do, giving us a Pavlovian validation for our posts. 
  • We want attention.  Why just talk to one friend when you can have all your "friends" look at you at once. Facebook nurtures your inner drama queen, encouraging you to stand up on a pedestal and say "look at me and what I have to say". And it uses your friends to reward you with gold stars (Likes) on the things you share.
  • We want to be approved of/appreciated. Since most of the people on Facebook are real people who know you, you won't get a lot of negative feedback to anything you say. But you will get lots of approval through Likes and comments. This generally positive feedback makes you feel great and like everyone appreciates you. Nothing about Facebook is set up to discourage you, so you post more and more.
  • We want to be acclaimed. This is something Twitter excels at, with its culture of "Retweets" and giving public mention to people who share something interesting or make a difference to you. Facebook are late to the game, but with their pseudo-@ mentions/links in comments and now the ability to re-share a friend's link "via" that friend, they are now encouraging the ability for us all to showcase each other and make us feel even more admired.
  • We want to be assured. By encouraging a trusted community where you can share your thoughts with a wide group, Facebook makes a highly effective forum for getting feedback and assurance that your thoughts are "normal". It's a sort of groupthink. Should I do X? I don't know, let's ask Facebook. Increasingly Facebook is becoming an amorphous friendblob and we think less about the individual friends within, or the implications of such wide sharing of our inner thoughts.
  • We want to belong. By highlighting mutual friendships, showing us activity from friends of friends, and combining together friends who have shared the same update, Facebook constantly reinforces the idea that Facebook is an elite social club that we love to be part of. Everyone has a different view of Facebook, it's full of people "like you", who you feel a sense of belonging to.
So it's clear that technology alone will not solve this problem. It's psychological. It's a habit. I (and we) need to start thinking about how to get these kind of buzzes and nice feelings from something other than Facebook (real life friendships anyone?), while simultaneously discouraging Facebook's ability to manipulate our emotions. I suspect that the secret may lie in alternative interfaces to Facebook. Already you can pull your Facebook feed out to other clients such as TweetDeck, Facepad and Flipboard. Perhaps there will be other interfaces designed soon that will put our interests first (and not just the self-indulgent ones but the practical, bigger picture ones too). 

I suspect that there may also be value in separating out the different people on Facebook into different interfaces. If for the most part I was only shown updates from my 5-10 closest friends and not all the more distant acquaintances and especially not all the updates from celebrity fan pages, there would be less content to pull me in and it might be easier to consume the Facebook feed in moderation. Interestingly, Facebook recently changed the default News Feed to only show the updates from the friends you interact with the most. You have to actively change a setting to see everyone. This was surprising because it goes against the trend of trying to connect everyone into one giant Facebook monoculture social graph. 

But it is also very scary. It means that your social life and which friends you interact with will for the vast majority of users (who don't change settings), be decided not by the individual but by Facebook. That is a terrifying thought. In this busy world with hundreds of "friends", it's all too easy to forget someone. That Facebook could change your life in this way without you realizing is highly concerning.

The annoying thing is, if they had actually tweaked this slightly and let us specify the list of friends to see, this would actually be a huge improvement. Maybe they'll do that in future.

I'm always torn in such matters. On the one hand, I want to focus on the people I care about most. On the other hand, years of blogging and social networking has taught me the value of serendipity (as explained in the excellent Bitnorth Short Bit by Lenny Rachitsky). That is, the idea that public communication with a wider audience can yield unexpected coincidences - acquaintances who happen to know the answer to your problem or share your obscure interest - which you never would have discovered otherwise.
I want to sample everything (which is why I love Flipboard). But I don't have the bandwidth to read everything. Right now, we don't have the interfaces to let us easily separate what's really important from the "background noise".
I'm still working on tweaking Twitter lists (via the excellent formulists) and RSS feed groupings to try and address this. But when you want to sample everything you're interested in, it's hard.

I haven't even talked about Twitter in all of this. On the bright side, I think my Twitter usage is still about the same. Twitter still prefer to keep their interface constrained and fragmented, which discourages a lot of engagement or long focussed conversations, and this means there is less "pull" than with Facebook - also because I follow so many people that I don't know - for that serendipity effect.

I don't have any firm conclusions for this post - except to say that the experiment in how to manage my digital social life in a controlled way is far from over. Facebook is winning the battle for my attention, but they haven't won the war.

I'm seeing a lot of articles pop up about the idea of "mindful social networking". I think this is a new trend and one which I will certainly be revisiting on this blog. More and more people are feeling overwhelmed and wanting to take control. It remains to be seen whether Facebook and Twitter will help us with this challenge, or leave us to flounder. One thing's for sure, any startup that launches a simple effective way to drink from the firehose will go a long way!

Image (C) by jasonjhr on Flickr.

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