Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The social experiment

My procrastination poem from Friday poked fun at Facebook and Twitter users (yes, I am on both). This morning, I happened across an article about the influence of social networks on our overall behavior, and I thought it worth sharing.

David DiSalvo's article, Are Social Networks Messing with Your Head? (Scientific American Mind, Jan/Feb 2010), provides a wealth of information about the numbers of people using social networks, how they use those networks, and whether they derive benefits or suffer costs in so doing.

A few (remarkable) facts:
  • Facebook has only been around since 2004. In the past six years, it has grown from a site that connected students at Harvard University (which is how I first heard of it) to a global phenomenon. 
  • Facebook now has 250 million members in 170 countries. As DiSalvo points out, "If Facebok itself were a country, it would be the fourth most populous in the world, just behind the U.S."
  • Though less widely used, Twitter has seven million active members "who broadcast more than 18 million snippets a day to anyone who will listen."
  • About half of the members on Facebook access it daily, and the most avid users spend 2 hours a day on Facebook while at work
Clearly, social networks (and I have focused here on just two—those that many authors use regularly), have become a huge part of our lives. So what impact do they have on us? On our well-being, sense of connection with others, productivity?

Researchers have done several studies of Facebook users to better understand the dynamic. They have found that people who use social networks to replace face-to-face interactions become lonelier over time. They attach greater importance to the number of friends/followers that they have, and they tend to feel greater anxiety when they experience long delays in hearing from others. In contrast, people who use the site to maintain contact with people with whom they interact in real life benefit from it. They are better able to maintain contact over periods when they might otherwise be too busy to keep in touch.

Using Facebook and Twitter for professional purposes (e.g., as a writer) can be extremely beneficial, provided that it is done well. Posts need to be interesting, relevant, and (perhaps most importantly) should not merely advertise one's own work. Others consider such posts narcissistic and quickly learn to avoid the sender. In fact, many successful bloggers and writers have written posts about the importance of focusing on the work of others, rather than your own. Consider it good Karma.

In addition, writers can use these networks to "meet" new people; when conferences roll around, the groundwork is in place to quickly and easily make the online connection a face-to-face one. In such situations, the benefits include those described above and the opportunity to greatly increase your network of professional associations.

Are you on Facebook or Twitter? How do you use them? Do they benefit your life, and if so, how?

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