August 17th, 2011
Maybe a Little Social Media Fatigue Isn't Such a Bad Idea
As Google (GOOG) 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 adds new activity streams to pull users in, and Facebook tries 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 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?
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 sameness 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’s 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.