When Facebook came along, it was obvious it was going to be something different. As its presence grew, so did the stranglehold it had over our daily lives. Add in the proliferation of smartphones, which has accelerated the use of social media to stratospheric levels, and we have a unique situation on our hands.
As much as we love to keep up to date with the latest goings on through our friends' lives, you would be hard pushed to find someone who says that they actually *like* the process of going through the newsfeed and scanning friends' updates. In fact, the Facebook newsfeed seems to have some strange hold over us that has us always moaning, yet always scanning.
The fact that Facebook has proliferated in our lives so absolutely means that we will, unfortunately, have to put up with a load of half-baked hypotheses or sometimes just plain BS from the media as to the effects of this. To give one example, the Mail recently reported that women are more likely to be 'addicted' to social media:
Never mind the fact that just a few paragraphs down, the researchers behind the study claimed that any gender trends were inconclusive.
Or that what the study actually proved was that people with addictive personalities could also be addicted to the internet, proving nothing other that people who are addicted have... addictive tendencies.
So while we do have to put up with a lot of headline grabbing journalism around social media, there is a real issue to be explored. As innocent and inconsequential as it may seem, just how much of our time are we spending looking at the Facebook newsfeed? I asked people roughly how many times a day they check their Facebook feed, either via desktop or mobile. On Twitter they said:
And on Facebook:
There are clearly some at the more extreme end of the scale, but overall it's safe to say we're checking it A LOT.
So what is this hold that Facebook has over us, and why are we drawn so consistently to that little ticker which supposedly gives us updates on the people in our lives we care about? Or at least those that we care enough about to add on Facebook (again, more on that later).
The Narcissist In You?
A simplified and often overused explanation is that Facebook appeals to our inner narcissist. As we're that in love with ourselves, we are addicted to this thing in Facebook that allows us to indulge in this self-love. Indeed, a study has found that those who amass a large number of friends, spend more than a day on Facebook and regularly tag themselves on Facebook displayed narcissistic tendencies. No s**t. But there is a danger with this approach in blaming Facebook as indulging narcissists and applying century-old philosophies, instead of looking at this unique, modern-day problem it has created.
Yes, there are people on Facebook that are clearly into it more than others, religiously tagging themselves, editing photos to portray themselves in the best way, and building up friends wherever they can to show how popular they are. And yes, it is more than a little bit weird when someone adds you as a 'friend' when you've literally just met them and you are still, actually, right in front of them at the time. Quite how much they value your 'friendship' at that stage rather than just seeing you as a number is, at best, questionable. But to say that Facebook appeals to those with narcissistic tendencies is short-sighted. Instead, we need to look deeper and examine just what it is Facebook has created that we now have to deal with.
Our Facebook profiles are essentially an extension of ourselves, and one that we still have to get our heads around. When before has society, en masse, had a public representation of individuals where every action is subject to a reaction, a judgement of some sort? Your Facebook profile contains everything about your life that you've chosen to create, and many elements that you haven't. So is it really that surprising that we would take a heightened interest in what's going on in there? Some may see it as an escape from reality, whereas others see it as being a part of the very reality they've created.
Speaking To Our Insecurities
But why exactly does Facebook have the hold over us that it does? How are we able to check it so often, so religiously, yet apparently (if you listen to pretty much anyone who talks about it) gain so little satisfaction from it. It may well be the case that rather than using Facebook to actively serve a need or desire, it is instead speaking to our insecurities. Is it bad to want a lot of friends if Facebook only puts a limit of 5,000 on them? Is it bad to only want the best photos of yourself when any of your friends scroll through them? And is it even bad to update about banal details of your life, if there's a chance that someone, anyone, will like it or leave a comment and confirm that not only are you there, but that you're worth enough to them to engage with?
Though some may do this to the point where they test your ability to put up with it, it is not their fault, really. Are they addicted to Facebook? Maybe. But this is actually just a side-effect of being addicted to their lives and everyone in them. Which is, for the record, very different to being addicted to yourself.
But where Facebook does speak to our insecurities, there is an inherent danger with this. In the need to be liked or noticed, there is undoubtedly an element of 'self-editing' going on. We want people to know the best parts of our lives, or at least those that we deem to be the most interesting. Given how much of people's lives we're consuming through the Facebook newsfeed, how healthy can this be? Much as we expect an element of glossing over in mainstream media, we must now come to expect this from our own friends and family. The danger, of course, is if you think that everyone is out there having the kind of lives where every detail is worth a status update and that yours pales in comparison.
We need to develop a filter to allow us to effectively handle the information that we're consuming. It is very, very different than phoning a friend or meeting up once a week and getting the edited highlights.
Capitalising On Our Addiction
There is another associated danger in just how much Facebook is capitalising on our addiction to the newsfeed. Every time we upload a status or a photo, we are giving Facebook a piece of data that they can sell. And every time we check in to see what's going on, we're giving them another page impression, that again can be sold. So of course Facebook will do everything they can do to feed this addiction. Whether it's increasing the actions you can take (such as introducing the like button), or increasing the ways in which you can monitor your Facebook (such as introducing the sidebar feed), it's doing this to the point where it's becoming an unhealthy distraction and an addiction.
The concept of Facebook being a distraction must be treated carefully. Sure, some people spend a large amount of time passively consuming content on there, but this isn't really a whole lot different to sitting in front of the TV, lapping up what's fed to you. One is not necessarily any better/worse than the other. It's only when you consider that you are giving this level of attention and time to one entity: Facebook, should it be looked at as a cause for concern.
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