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Couple using smartphones on a date.The concept of phone addiction. Face absorbed by the phone.
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Why Social Media Are So Addictive

It’s not hard science or magic. Specific characteristics explain social media's power

When you sit down to read a non-fiction book, perhaps about a historical event, you expect to be informed. When you read fiction, you expect something different: to be taken into the world and lives of other people, as imagined by the author. What about television? When you watch TV, what is it that you expect? The most common answer to this question is entertainment.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman called this kind of expectation—what we expect—the resonance of the medium.

The resonance of books is to inform; even in fiction, the author informs the reader through descriptions. The resonance of television is to entertain; even serious topics like international news, must—by the internal logic of the medium itself—be presented in an entertaining way.

Knowing the resonance of a medium helps us understand its specific impact on our culture at large and on individual users.

So, to really understand the impact of social media, we need to identify its resonance. Let’s look at Facebook. Research shows that people who use Facebook engage in a form of identity construction. That is, they present highlight reels of their lives.

According to researchers, social media are a “nonymous” environment. They are not entirely anonymous because the people who interact on social media often know one another “in real life” (IRL). They are also not fully transparent because people who know one another encounter each other through the lens of the social media network. As a result, people cannot fully construct an identity that does not match their “real life” persona but they can shape what others see of them online to be more positive or impressive than the everyday reality.

The result is a kind of performance—an “outer life” that is put on for others. There is still an authentic life but it is buried or hidden; the less it matches the online persona, the more it is suppressed because of the nonymous nature of the social media environment.

Social media’s resonance, then, can be said to be performance. Understanding the resonance of social media helps us understand its impact on us. For instance:

No-one listens on social media—everyone just talks past one another or trolls. This makes sense if social media is primarily performance; no-one is on social media to convince anyone else but rather to perform for those who are already in their “tribe.” This aspect of social media increases tribalism, leading to hostility and ad hominem attacks, rather than discussion.

● Users easily become addicted to social media. This makes sense if we keep in mind that users are primarily focused on receiving positive feedback for their performance rather than on contact and discussion with others. While many other elements promote social media addiction, the tendency towards performance is probably a factor.

● Heavy use of social is often connected to depression. Highlight reels cause depression-prone users to feel that their lives are inferior. Everyone they are following seems to have a perfect life—because those people only post their most perfect moments. To the extent that social media resonates with performance, the connection with depression becomes deeper; the user’s performance is directly compared with the performances of others through the “like” button and other forms of social approval. Such an experience can deepen anxiety and drive susceptible users towards depression.

It’s not all bad news! Understanding the resonance of social media can help users reduce their impact on their lives. For instance, we can be intentional about communication with those we know “in real life,” and refuse to post “highlight reels.” In other words, there is freedom in self-forgetfulness, even in the realm of social media.


Also by Russ White on understanding social media:

You think you have nothing to hide? Then why are Big Tech moguls making billions from what you and others tell them? The bottom line is this: if you think you don’t have anything to hide, then you don’t understand how the modern data economy really works, nor the impact of being caught in a riptide of public opinion.

Why you can’t just ask social media to forget you While we now have a clear picture of the challenges current social media pose to peoples and cultures, what to do is unclear.

and

Will Facebook’s new focus on “community groups” prevent abuses? When you look a little closer at the proposal, you will see that the answer is no.


Russ White

Russ White has spent the last 30 years designing, building, and breaking computer networks. Across that time he has co-authored 42 software patents, 11 technology books, more than 20 hours of video training, and several Internet standards. He holds CCIE 2635, CCDE 2007:001, the CCAr, an MSIT from Capella University, an MACM from Shepherds Theological Seminary, and is currently working on a PhD in apologetics and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Why Social Media Are So Addictive