Social media has taken the world by storm, everyone from my maid to my grandpa seem to know about facebook, and are possibly on it. But I remember till a few years ago how, when I was found glued to my CRT monitor (remember those?) blogging, or reading blogs on wordpress.com, scouring the digg.com front page, it would drive my mom crazy. She could never really understand why I needed to be online all the time and what I could possibly gain out it. The words crazy, addict and waste of time were frequently hurled at me. Last week, at a family gathering, my mom was holding forth on how being on facebook is a necessity.
My mom is not the only one, from large media houses which ridiculed twitter as a fad, to the medical fraternity which rushed to diagnose various pathologies associated with social media, from reduced attention spans to twitter thumbs, are now doing it. What was once a fad or an addiction is now hotly sold as a necessity.
It is fairly obvious to the discerning reader that “addiction or necessity” are not really opposites. Many necessary things can become addictions and some addictions are necessary. But these divisions are commonly used and are broadly how haters as well as fans qualify their indulgence in social media. However, instead of making a statement like “it is an addiction from some and a necessity for others”, I would like to look at why such a dichotomy came to be.
Three principles that apply broadly to the behavior of those who react adversely to it and to those who use social media are
- Power always tries to conserve power.
- Variable-ratio schedules in operant conditioning
might seem like a harsh diagnosis, but taken in the sense that we fear that which we do not understand and ridicule that wich we fear, it fits well.
We are creatures of routine. With the advent of social media, many of the older methods of making connections, networking and even romance have been changed radically. Also, with social media the tools keep on changing, once it was orkut, now it is facebook. Now it is twitter, who knows what it will be tomorrow. And all new technologies come with a steep learning curve and favor early adopters. For the slightly older, it is only natural that who are adept at their own social media (the neighborhood tea shop, cocktail party etc.) the break in routine, the long hours and constant connectivity of social media seems absurd. To this confusion, add the disruption it creates in the normal lives of users, and what you have is an easy target to be labeled addiction.
Conservation of Power
The Internet is disruptive, and it keeps becoming more disruptive with time. In the past decade, the Internet has made stupendous changes in the way we think, act and make our living. One of the key hallmarks of the new web is that its users use it for more than its intended purpose. Look at Twitter. The owners dared to release it without a business plan or even an intended audience, today it has transformed the world.
Till the advent of these social-levelers, who gets famous and what becomes the talk of the town was largely controlled by a highly concentrated coccus of king makers.
This is the more subtle reason why the Mainstream, be it media houses or ad companies,did not look favorably toward social media at first. While there were always forums and irc rooms where the “geeks” spoke of obscure things, a flattening of the news/opinion making did not happen even online till the advent of blogs first and later, to a much larger extent till the advent of facebook, twitter and a few other similar services. It is doubtful that the powers that be consciously understood what social media was going to do, but it instinctively realized that there was an implicit threat in a medium where everyone had and opinion and anyone could technically become an opinion maker. Now, we know who had the last laugh.
It has been noticed that in situations where there is an action and a response, If the response follows an action, but not at every instance of the action, the behavior that leads to the action is reinforced and habits thus formed are very resistant to change
This is the reason we spend so much time, so much effort and allow social media to make massive changes to our lives. We can never be sure which tweet is going to get 100 re tweets or what pic is going to reach reddit front page, there are formulas, but they dont always work, this hooks us in, just like it does gamblers. This pattern of reward has been shown by psychologists to be more resistant of change (read: addiction inducing) than when there is always a reward.
addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.
looking at the definitions alone, you might feel that you qualify, but the most important factors that makes something an addiction are
- Inability to manage without it
- Severe/serious disruption in normal life due to it
- Continuing the activity even after demonstrable ill effects to self.
While there are social media addicts, they are a minute minority and I am pretty sure that there are not many tweeters who get divorced due to excessive tweeting.
Obsession: the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.
Obsessions on the other hand are more common, they are characterized by preoccupation and craving. If you have been blogging or tweeting for a while you have an almost constant mental conversation trying to fit real life into tweets and blog posts. Yes, that is an obsession, and it can be healthy, it can be your bread and butter, it can keep you online 10 hours a day and make your mom go crazy. So, take a step back if your mom threatens to throw you out, but chances are she will join facebook tomorrow, its addictive you see.