Scanning your friends’ status updates and updating the world on your own activities via your wall — what [Carnegie Mellon researcher] Moira Burke calls “passive consumption” and “broadcasting” — correlates to feelings of disconnectedness. It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear.
Passive consumption of Facebook also correlates to a marginal increase in depression. If two women each talk to their friends the same amount of time, but one of them spends more time reading about friends on Facebook as well, the one reading tends to grow slightly more depressed.
In one experiment, John Cacioppo [director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago] looked for a connection between the loneliness of subjects and the relative frequency of their interactions via Facebook, chat rooms, online games, dating sites, and face-to-face contact. The results were unequivocal. The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are. So if social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy. If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.
(1) John Cacioppo argues that Facebook isn’t necessarily negative if you use it to increase the frequency of your face-to-face interactions with friends and family. However, I think this underestimates the addictiveness of Facebook as a product. Even if you have an agenda for how you want to use Facebook, you’re battling the company’s product resources and expertise which are deployed to maximize the time spent per user on Facebook (because that drives Facebook’s monetization). So when you log into Facebook, even to reach out to a friend, Facebook lures you into “passive consumption”. Moira Burke found that this leads to increases in disconnectedness and depression. It also crowds out face-to-face interactions.
(2) A better strategy: If you want a break from what you’re working on, go chat with a real human being. Or take a walk.
(3) Cf. Can you achieve great things if you’re a regular Facebook or Twitter user?