Friday, February 5, 2010

Facebook, Twitter and Your Mind

The article Are Social Networks Messing With Your Head? from the January / February 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind by David DiSalvo is pretty fascinating. You can click the cover image to purchase the issue online. One of the theses of the article is that as social networks continue to grow, people are changing the way they think about the Internet as something that now touches on questions about human nature and identity. The millions and millions of social-network users are part of the largest experiment in social interaction ever conducted.

Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and their cousins have evolved from college fad to global ubiquity in seven short years. Whether they are good for our mental health is another matter.

Some key concepts of the article:

  • As social networks proliferate, they are changing the way people think about the Internet, from a tool used in solitary anonymity to an ubiquitous medium.
  • Nielsen Online reports that social networking (and associated blogging) is now the fourth most popular online activity.
  • Social networks can lessen loneliness and boost self-esteem. But they can also have the opposite effect, depending on who you are and how you use these forums.

FACING IT: Humans' experiment with social networks is fairly new, but wildly popular. Researchers are trying to get a handle on the impact of these new social tools on our minds.

David uses the three-part definition of social-networking sites from the paper by social media researchers Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Mass., and Nicole B. Ellison of Michigan State University:
  • they must provide a forum where users can construct a public or semipublic profile;
  • create a list of other users with whom they share a connection;
  • and view and move around their list of connections and those made by others.
He then walks through some very interesting data on sites like Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, Bebo, Qzone (a massive Chinese site targeted to teens) and of course Facebook. He says:
If Facebook itself were a country, it would be the fourth most populous in the world, just behind the U.S. Almost half its users visit the site every day. Other social-networking sites are also booming. LinkedIn, a site geared for professional networkers, has more than 40 million users and adds one member every second. MySpace, the largest social network until Facebook overtook it last year, has 125 million users, and seven million Twitter users broadcast more than 18 million snippets a day to anyone who will listen... Time spent using social-networking sites is growing at three times the rate of overall Internet usage, accounting for almost 10 percent of total time spent online.
Obviously this is having a huge impact and helping to create a generational digital divide. David makes the case that Facebook use can boost self-esteem in adolescents, stimulating disclosure and self-presentation and giving them a greater sense of self-confidence when interacting in person. But some neuroscientists such as Gary Small of the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Human Mind believe that social-networks can stoke the fires of compulsive behavior leading to an addiction of sorts.

He closes the article with a very though-provoking statement:
Beyond dessert recipes, funny pet stories and tales of what the baby did for the first time this morning, a transformational current is surging. What once seemed a faddish online application is on its way to global ubiquity. Before long, social networking may be part of every communication tool we use—changing how we interact with one another and, in the process, changing us.
It is a brave new world indeed...