That may seem like a strange headline for a blog devoted to all things social media-related, but several news stories about social media have finally pushed me over the edge: I have to share my own growing skepticism about social media from a purely personal perspective. Yes, social media represents an amazing advance in communications technology, which has opened whole new worlds of possibility in news, opinion, politics, entertainment, art, and activism -- not to mention marketing and advertising. And no, I don’t think anyone is coercing us to use social media, nor do I agree with people who claim that technology is “reshaping our brains” or “changing the way we think.” But there are still plenty of good reasons for limiting or even ending your involvement in social media.
I was inspired to write this by an article in the Daily Mail, which in turn cited articles in the German Der Tagesspiegel and Forbes.com suggesting that people who don’t have Facebook profiles are “abnormal,” “suspicious,” and possibly even psychopaths; the German article notes that neither James Holmes, the Colorado theater shooter, or Anders Breivik, who murdered scores of young Norwegians, had a Facebook profile, and the Forbes article observes that not having a Facebook profile will make potential employers think you have something to hide.
Enough is enough: I think it’s time to speak up for people who don’t use, or who severely limit their usage, of social media -- including myself (I know, it’s funny: a social media blogger who doesn’t like social media). We’re not psychopaths, we may be highly employable, and we have good reasons for not using social media. In our defense, here are nine reasons to rethink your own relationship with social media.
1. It’s a waste of time. Be honest: first, I want you to think about how much time you spend using social media in a given day. Second, draw up a list of the fun, useful, interesting, relevant things you learned, or shared with others, by using social media during that time. These can be anything, including updates about your or your friends’ and family members’ lives, funny video clips that made you laugh, news from the world at large, work-related happenings, anything at all. Now, compare what you learned or disseminated with the amount of time you spent acquiring or disseminating that information: does it seem like an appropriate and proportionate expenditure of time? How much of it was just goofing off? On that note, in November 2011 Zynga’s Ryan Linton said the average user spends 6.5 hours per week playing games -- games which are precisely engineered to suck you in by being just the right level of hard-but-not-too-hard. I won’t even get into the virtual goods sales because I find it too utterly depressing. But ask yourself if there could be some better use of your time, whether working, or exercising, or face-to-face socializing, or even just doing nothing at all and enjoying some self-reflection; my bet is the answer is “yes.”
2. It’s addictive and unhealthy. This won’t come as a surprise to most people who use social media, but researchers in Norway have created a Facebook addiction scale, adapting traditional addiction rubrics, including: “You spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or plan use of Facebook; You feel an urge to use Facebook more and more; You use Facebook in order to forget about personal problems; You have tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success; You become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using Facebook; You use Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.” Like other types of addiction, Facebook addiction can have negative ramifications for your health: if nothing else, some of those countless hours might be better spent taking a walk, pursuing a hobby, or doing activities you enjoy outside. Now it’s true, not everyone who uses Facebook becomes addicted: some people are much better at moderating their usage and using it in responsible ways. But if you think you might have an addictive personality, it’s something to watch out for.
3. It encourages envy/narcissism. Speaking of addiction, I find social media problematic because of the way it works on us psychologically. This is especially true of Facebook, which invites users to create profiles documenting as much of their lives as they care to share. It’s no surprise, human nature being what it is, that most people choose to create the best, most favorable image they can for themselves. The problem is when other people see that image and assume that it is fully accurate and representative -- then wonder why their own lives don’t seem as exciting or fulfilling by comparison. Again, this is a real psychological problem: a study by the University of Salford in Britain found negative outcomes from social media use including feelings of insecurity or lack of confidence when users compared their achievements to their friends; fully two-thirds of users with negative outcomes said the psychological distress made it hard to relax or fall asleep after being on a social media site. And in January of this year I wrote about a study by Utah Valley University sociologists which found that students who spend a lot of time on Facebook are relatively more likely to perceive other people as having better lives than themselves.
4. It takes you away from the real world. Yes, you can argue that social media isn’t distinct from the “real world,” but rather part of it -- but frankly that’s just not true. The real world is the flesh-and-blood here-and now -- your physical and mental being as it is unfolding from moment to moment, wherever you may be, whatever you may be doing. By inviting you to pore over other people’s (carefully-crafted representations of their own) lives, or obsess over how you choose to represent your own life to them, social media ironically distracts you from actually living it. This is a new twist on the old image of the bookworm, who “lives” through books at the expense of real life experience. Books are enormously valuable, of course, but they are no substitute for real life; same with social media.
5. It encourages superficial relationships. This is actually a two-pronged complaint. On one hand, one of the most annoying things about social media is the awkward moment when someone you don’t know well or particularly like asks to be your “friend” or otherwise connect with you online. This leaves you a choice: do you ignore the request and hope they get the picture, while feeling unfriendly and rude? Or do you accept the request and dilute the authenticity of your group of friends -- which also means you have to be more careful about what you post, and whom you share it with? Conversely, by giving you access to a constant stream of updates from your real friends, Facebook and Twitter can make you feel like you enjoy a closer connection with them than you really do. Remember, most people are presenting carefully-crafted, idealized images of themselves, which might well conceal the fact that they are, say, having family problems or a tough time at work. Is it really safe to assume your friends are telling you everything that’s going on with them through social media? Is it possible that they’d share something more private over a bottle of wine or a game of racquetball?
6. Privacy concerns/unethical business practices. I don’t think I have to explain this one too much, which is disturbing, since it may actually be the most convincing reason not to use social media. But think about it: in addition to the security of your own personal information, do you really want to be rewarding a business (you know which one I’m talking about) for progressively, incrementally breaking down our collective expectations of privacy? I don’t.
7. It can be personally and professional dangerous. Again, this isn’t a new concern, but it’s one that bears repeating. One of the remarkable things about the Internet in general, and social media in particular, is the way it allows most anyone to broadcast news and opinion to large numbers of people, if they so choose. The obvious danger is that individuals will, inadvertently or in a moment of bad judgment, broadcast something incredibly damaging to themselves and others. The danger is even more acute because, as every teenager should be warned and as countless hapless individuals have already learned, “once something is on the Web it will live there forever”: just one slip-up can kill you. Essentially, the individual user must be 100% sure that he or she has the discipline to never post something that is offensive or incriminating -- even, say, when they’re drunk or extremely upset or under a lot of stress. That is frankly setting the bar really high for ourselves.
8. It’s expected. Of course there are plenty of times when social expectations represent valid norms that most individuals would do well to adhere to: making a living, supporting their family, wearing clothes in public, not committing crimes, etc. But there is a secondary layer of norms which are totally optional, and which should remain that way. No one says you have to be on Facebook now, but there is a danger that our expectations will be subtly shifted over time: it’s disturbing to think that employers are already looking askance at people just because they don’t have social media profiles. The more people who resist the pressure to use social media, the more freedom of maneuver there will be for everyone else. Even if you don’t feel like quitting Facebook now… don’t you want to have that option in the future?
9. It’s only going to get worse. It is already obvious, from the behavior of Mark Zuckerberg and others, that social media companies have set themselves a single, overriding mission: to continually increase everyone’s engagement with social media through every means available. They have succeeded so far, and over time they will have more and more tools in their toolbox: the only limit is what engineers can do with the information we voluntarily give them. In short, if you think managing your social media presences is overwhelming now, just imagine what it will be like ten years from now. And ask yourself: is it really worth it?