According to the recently released book The Social Animal, the latest work by New York Times columnist David Brooks, the happiest humans are the social ones. Not necessarily the wealthiest ones or the most powerful ones, but the ones with numerous close friends.
In this context, the online revolution in which we currently find ourselves would seem an unqualified boon. People are connecting from across the country, peeking in on one another’s daily doings, and sharing their own experiences. According to Facebook, its servers receive 1.7 million photo uploads each minute. In the same time, Youtube receives 35 hours of video.
At a technology conference last year, Google’s outgoing CEO Eric Schmidt said that we upload as much data in 48 hours — about five billion gigabytes — as was created “between the birth of the world and 2003.”
The media-filled future seems so bright, it might be giving us a migraine.
It’s not uncommon to hear that the Internet is destroying our generation’s capacity to concentrate. Nor is anyone unfamiliar with that one person who believes we are on the crest of a surge of democratized information that will connect far-flung communities in some new, eudaemonic way. But there is a third, less dogmatic view of the Infobahn: Facebook, and all its ancillaries, are like food.
Just as you can feast on a nutritional wasteland of waffle fries and Red Bull, you can pig out on social media and do commensurate damage to your brain. Research from a 4,000 student study found a correlation between hyper-networking (more than three hours networking) and health issues. Hyper-networkers were 340 percent more likely to have an eating disorder and 240 percent more likely to have attempted suicide.
No one claims that Facebook causes you to off yourself. But the study shows that extremity in one aspect of your life can bleed into others.
It is not that we, enabled by new technologies, are any more social than we were before. We have been social animals since our antediluvian beginnings. What the Facebook flood allows, however, is for companies to twist this itch to interact into a latent anxiety about all the things we see cascading down our news feed.
Marketers call it FOMO — the fear of missing out — and it is one of the oldest motivators of human behavior. Like those yoga classes you signed up for, that latest episode of Glee or any other cult show, or even that smartphone you were just sold, the product you just purchased is other people. The value of networks is in satiating that primordial desire to be a part of something.
Facebook is the triumph of FOMO. We reach for our phone every three minutes just in case there’s a new notification there. We watch our friends’ status updates tell of a great campus event they’re at and get a sense that we’re participating.
And while there is true connection to be had online, it is no more abundant there than it is off the grid. The most disappointing aspect of Youtube was the suffocating volume of cats and klutzes.
We had the chance to all watch and respond to endless hours PBS and we chose puppycam, much like a 5-year-old would choose cupcakes over cauliflower.
No one would claim, “Food is good, let’s eat as much as possible.” But we rarely question the the virtue of quantity over quality. In our marketing department, we praise the gluttonous, calling them the “social media savvy.”
These networks can be a dutiful servant or a terrible master. The average Facebook user spends 55 minutes online every day. Generally, you’re gaping at drivel, and, having just inhaled the Facebook equivalent of a Twinkie, are hungrier for substantive connection than when you first signed in.
But you could act like George Watsky, an Emerson graduate who recently uploaded a series of slam poetry videos that gathered millions of views and landed him on Ellen. You could start a blog like Gaby Dunn, who decided to conduct 100 independent interviews that became so popular they are being considered. The point is not that these Emersonians used social media toward their success, but that their substantive contribution was met with equal appreciation.
So be sure to go online and do something of substance tomorrow, lest you wake up years from now fat on Facebook with a great future behind you.