The social media paradox

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In a 2007 study from the Journal of Economic Psychology – “Does Watching TV Make Us Happy” – behavioural economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer concluded that not only do unhappy people watch more television than those who are happy, but TV-watching displaces activities – especially social ones – that create longer-term gratification. In an article titled ‘Why Viewers Watch’ published 13 years earlier, Jim Fowles, a writer for the Canadian Journal of Communication, noted: “Television viewing has come to displace principally (a) other diversions, (b) socialising, and (c) sleep”.

Then in the early 2000s something called ‘social media’ appeared, a new type of social lubricant for the 21st century that transformed the way society used its free time. For the first time in history people started watching less TV than their elders, turning away from passive consumption and towards active participation – a phenomenon that many social theorists believed would help humanity fulfil its ‘naturally social’ agenda.

But has it?

On the one hand it has. Practical problems like commuting can now be taken on in a social way through sites like PickupPal.com, which has helped to co-ordinate drivers and riders planning to travel along the same route. It has also helped mobilise large crowds of (peaceful) demonstrators that has forced governments to overturn international agreements. A pertinent example of this is the re-opening of the Korean market to U.S beef in 2003 which, due to the longevity of the protests that took place and the sheer scale of the participants involved, forced an entire cabinet to resign and placed additional restrictions on all unwanted beef imported from the United States.

On the other hand, however, it’s become the catalyst that has led to a rapid reduction in social capital and contributed significantly to one of the most common ailments that exists in the modern world: loneliness.

Through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter human beings are able to present their selves to the world exactly how they want to be presented. Instead of building true friendships we have become obsessed with personal promotion, i.e. choosing the photo in which we look our best or pursuing the optimal order of words in our next message. We are, it would seem, increasingly reliant on technology and the gratifying fantasies that it offers (such as putting our attention wherever we want it and knowing that we’ll always be heard) than we are on each other. Essentially we’re sacrificing conversation with connection.

This is the social media paradox. It can be the connective tissue of society and also society’s worst enemy.

Without a doubt, social media has made it easier for individuals and businesses alike to communicate with its publics. The viral and ubiquitous nature of the space means that when someone mentions a brand, product or service, more people are going to notice it and conversations are going to spread much quicker. For businesses and public relations specialists, therefore, social media is a goldmine and this is nothing new. What we must ensure, however, is that we don’t live our professional (and personal) lives online to the extent we become totally incapable of building true relationships the old-fashioned way: face-to-face. As the iconic Ms Moneypenny notes in Skyfall, “Sometimes the old ways are the best”.