Being critical of social media, nowadays, is like shouting "stop" at a speeding freight train: Don't expect to make much of an impression. The same is true for observations about modern society in general, where trends emerge and unfold on such a huge scale that all the individual can do is take note of them (and maybe cynically cash in, if blessed with an entrepreneurial bent).
But I am all about being quixotic. Just show me the windmill and I'll tilt, baby, I'll tilt! And with Thanksgiving approaching, I thought I'd take a look at the bigger "social" implications of social media.
One of the most interesting things about the rise social media, in my opinion, is the fact that it seems to be substituting for or replacing real, face-to-face social interaction -- and in that sense it might be more properly called "antisocial" or at least "less social" media. But it's not really social media's fault, as this is merely the continuation of a long-term trend stretching back half a century.
According to a number of time use surveys by academics and the U.S. government over the years, the average time spent socializing as part of non-work leisure time by U.S. adults ages 18-64 has fallen more than half over the last five decades, from 85 minutes per day in 1965 to 57 minutes in 1985, 45 minutes in 2005, and 42 minutes per day in 2009.
It wouldn't be hard to come up with speculative explanations for this decrease based on geographic, economic, and psychological factors. From 1960-2010 the proportion of Americans living in suburbs increased from 30% to over 50%; while suburbs aren't inherently antisocial, the advent of gated communities planned entirely around automobile transportation may be less conducive to neighborly socializing. At the same time gender roles changed, with the labor participation rate of women rising from 38% in 1960 to 60% currently, leaving female workers less time to socialize. Meanwhile the average U.S. family has become smaller and more geographically dispersed.
This sympathetic portrayal of Americans on the go provides might seem to support social media evangelists who argue that online social networks serve a kind of stopgap role, allowing busy people to stay in touch with each other despite increasingly hectic schedules.
But unfortunately it just ain't so: it turns out total leisure time has actually increased over the same period, longer commutes and women's growing workforce participation notwithstanding, with the total average leisure time enjoyed by U.S. adults actually increasing 19% from 264 minutes per day in 1965 to 315 minutes per day in 2009. Crunching the numbers, in proportional terms the amount of leisure time Americans spent in face-to-face socializing fell from 32% in 1965 to 13% in 2009.
What this suggests to me is that people could easily be socializing more... but they just don't want to. It can't be a coincidence that with more leisure time of their hands, Americans are spending more of it alone. For one thing, everyone is watching more TV -- a lot more TV: as I've noted in previous columns, according to Nielsen, the average time TVs were on in American households increased from 4.6 hours per day in 1950, to 5.9 hours in 1970, 6.6 hours in 1980, 7.1 hours in 1990, 7.6 hours in 2000, and 8.2 hours in 2009.
In this context, the increasing amount of time spent on social media makes it seem less like a stopgap measure facilitating social activity despite time constraints, and more like yet another distraction from true face-to-face socializing. In this regard it is especially pernicious -- more so than TV -- because it encourages participants to believe they are engaged in a "social" world which is actually mostly a construction of their own minds: glancing at someone's Facebook updates is not the same as talking to them in person, or even chatting with them online, but I can imagine people using these quick snippets to justify devoting less time to true social contact. Sort of like the social equivalent of "empty calories."