Friday, December 19, 2008

What are the downsides to using social media?

I received a thoughtful e-mail from Thom Jeavons Executive Director of ARNOVA with his questions about the downsides of using social media. He, like many people, is concerned that social media provides "fragmentation and superficialization of our lives and culture."

I am an advocate of social media, however, I appreciated his correspondence because it provided me an opportunity to think about and research this topic further. There is little empirical evidence about the downsides of using social media as well as the benefits of using social media, so I decided to conduct a social experiment in order to respond to his questions in the most informed way.

First, I discussed these questions offline with my co-workers. Then I went online and twittered these questions to my online social network. I also sent an e-mail and asked all time Social Media maven-Beth Kanter to respond to these questions. Here are his questions along with the responses from my social network. How would you respond?

1. Do electronic and virtual forms of communication and discussion actually create real communities and build true social capital?
  • Mark Hager from ASU responded by saying "Yes, community, but different kind of community. Yes, social capital, with evidence that you and I connected to discuss it."He also told me about a book "The Different Drum" and the author Scott Peck's definition of community.
  • Beth Kanter said, "That's the 500 million dollar question." She told me to read Lucy Bernholz's blog and to check out Ashoka. She also told me about the MacArthur Foundation's work with Digital Media and Learning. I went to their website and saw they just released a study about teens and their use of digital media. This study shows that "America’s youth are developing important social and technical skills online — often in ways adults do not understand or value."
  • Beth also told me about how people who "meet" on twitter then decide to meet in person. That has happened to me with my Next Gen blogging friends whom I met online and then had the opportunity to blog with at the IS conference.
  • Then Michael Cayley found me on twitter. He wrote the book Social Capital Value Add.
  • I found the study: Social Capital and College Students Use of Online Social Network Sites
2. Is the cost for the speed and breadth these communications attain a likely loss in the care and depth of the communications (and relationships) that result?
  • From my personal experience this depends on the person. Beth Kanter responded by saying it depends on how people build their network.
  • A few years ago I admit I used e-mail in situations when I should have picked up the phone instead and I know other people struggle with this as well. Sometimes we need to turn off the texting or e-mail and use in person forms of communication. The key is balance and knowing what is the best method of communication for the situation. I've learned this the hard way.
  • However, there is also a cost and loss of people not being able to use social media. See Beth Kanter's post about the American Red Cross. Beth also told me about Liz Strauss's blog.
  • My colleague Lindsey McDougle told me about the study from Scientific American and how scientists are discussing the positives and downsides to social media.
3. Given that time is a finite resource, when people are spending huge amounts of their time in the “virtual world” of social networks, blogs, text messages and such, what are they giving up?

(For instance, reading substantial pieces of literature; spending time in the kinds of conversations in person with friends or colleagues that generate new depths of personal or intellectual understanding; attending an actual meeting with people where hearing tone of voice and watching body language make it possible to work through hard issues with insight and compassion.)

  • I'd like to present the argument--people can do both. Technology has given me the opportunity to be more productive during my day. I read more substantial pieces of literature online, I value substantial in person conversations with my fellow doctoral students and professors, however, I also value the conversations I have on twitter and facebook. I also wrote a paper about how blogging accelerated the careers of several emerging leaders in the sector.
  • When I posted this question on facebook, people did respond by saying when they are online they are giving up naps, face-to-face interaction, fresh air and exercise. So, people do acknowledge they are giving up something when they are online.
4. What is happening to people’s capacities for sustained attention, deep listening, and integrative understanding as our media for communication increasingly utilize forms of communications that are brief, fragmented, and often part of a multi-tasking environment?
  • Again I can only speak about my own experience on this. I love attending conferences. I can sit for hours and hours in sessions, in fact, I feel guilty if I even miss one session. I and I love the networking part of conferences. So I have a hard time when I hear skeptics say we are loosing capacity for "sustained attention and deep listening."
  • However, I am sure that some people that use technology all the time need to learn how to better engage in deep listening.
In conclusion, this social experiment shows the huge value of online social networking. I learned about a lot of studies including Wave 3 which shows the millions and millions of people that are online and participating in blogs, wikis, and online social networking. However, there is still a lot of empirical research that needs to be done on this topic, especially to explore the downsides of social media.


Hildy Gottlieb said...

Great question! One of the most interesting online discussions I have recently participated in has been “What forms of online communication create the most deeply-thought-out, engaged and sustained discussion?”

Oddly enough, in that particular discussion, the overwhelming consensus was the good old-fashioned listserv! No one in the group could definitively state why, although there was lots of speculation. But the overwhelming observation was that people formed community faster and deeper, and were more willing to explore issues more deeply AND for more sustained periods (the issue of attention span) in that format than any other.

To that end, some of my closest friends are folks I first met online (mostly via blogs and listservs, perhaps only because they have been around longer). From there, phone and F2F friendships formed. So it is clearly not an either/or, as many of your experts noted - it is absolutely both. Online is a great introduction that leads to the rest.

It will be interesting to see, as the technology continues to evolve, how we will mold it to do what we humans need - connect with each other in meaningful ways. Thanks for raising the question!


Anonymous said...

All good points. Three additional things:

1) I hear a lot of complaining about social isolation, but no clear policies. Perhaps those people can suggest some value-conserving measures that they would like to see? Then we could evaluate, discuss, or find specific studies.

2) It's a moving target. the historical trends of technology don't necessarily predict future trends. For example; twitter behaviors have a growing geographic component. Perhaps twitter will end up enabling more and better face-to-face.

Elaine Fogel said...

Social media is here to stay. The stats and studies indicate its growth will be exponential. According to the 2008 Cone Business in Social Media Study, 60% of Americans use social media, and of those, 59% interact with companies on social media Web sites. One in four interacts more than once per week.

If people expect businesses to use social media, there's a good chance that they expect the same from the causes they support. Of course, we still need specific research to confirm this.

I have personally connected with so many people through my blog posts on, my LinkedIn page and others. Even though it does take an investment of time, the medium is truly amazing.