Diane Benscoter passionately shared her insights into how cults rewire our brains. In her 2009 TedX Talk she recounts her state of mind when she first encountered the Moonies, the followers of Sun Myung Moonthe, leader of the Unification Church.
Cults are most effective at targeting young adults who, like Ms. Benscoter in 1974, are naïve and idealistic. She believes that such people are susceptible to viral memetic infections. Based on the idea that a meme is a cultural idea, belief, or pattern of behavior that resides in the minds of multiple people, emotionally connecting to it in one person’s mind will inevitably, through human communications, create a snowball effect in the minds of others.
I was struck by this description because it so closely aligns with the experiences we’re seeing today on Facebook.
Is Facebook a modern day cult?
Consider the characteristics of a cult: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members and making money; leaders dictate how members should think, act, and feel; it has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society. Typically, members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and are encouraged to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
Facebook certainly exhibits many of those same characteristics and the inordinate amount of time that people dedicate to the world’s largest social network is eerily similar to that demanded of members by cults. Its leaders game the application to encourage more and exclusive interaction within its digital walls, offering many inbound but few outbound connections in order to maintain control of user engagement and content. Of course this is by design; the strict control enables it to drive more revenue. And it’s working.
Facebook released its quarterly earnings report this month, which reported an increase in users (1.15 billion) who are logging in and sharing more information daily than ever before. In fact, 76% of Facebook members log in daily, according to a survey initiated by The Buntin Group and Survey Sampling International.
Redefining Our Interpersonal Communication and Relationships
Facebook has had a dramatic effect on our definition of relationships. Our society has quickly moved from living mostly private lives to living life in the public, digital sphere. Facebook uses gamfication tactics to encourage and reward us for sharing more of our thoughts, behaviors, and activities with the world. The activities and thoughts that we used to consider private or too mundane to share with other people have become our new base vocabulary.
Like cults, Facebook has devalued traditional friendships and even romantic relationships. You can meet someone once and become “best friends” on Facebook the next day. In fact, best-friend-type relationships, as evidenced by the personal information we share with our peers online, are often established on Facebook among people who have never met in person.
Facebook has had such an impact on how we relate to each other that new studies are linking it to an increase in the break-up of relationships. A recent study by Divorce Online, a legal consulting firm, of divorced couples in the UK found “Facebook” listed as one of the reasons 33% of couples divorced.
Our privacy, once held sacred, is now a cost we willingly pay for access to a larger community of over-sharers. What’s amazing to me is that we’re unsure of exactly what or how much personal data we’re providing and how they might be used, yet we blindly accept privacy statements and jump into Facebook engagement and apps with little apprehension.
Who’s At Risk?
Reiterating Ms. Benscoter’s statement, cults are most attractive to– and can do the most damage to – young, naïve and idealistic youth. “Cults “make anything rationalizable, anything possible,” she continues. With the world’s population quickly becoming the domain of Generation Y or Millennials (people born between 1982-2000) who are considered “digital natives,” we must ask ourselves if their brains are being rewired. And if so, to what effect?
Millennials have been found to be “more civically and politically disengaged, more focused on materialistic values, and less concerned about helping the larger community than were GenX (born 1962-1981) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to about 1961) at the same ages,” according to a study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Some argue it’s the type of social disengagement found in the ‘60s and ‘70s that spurred the success of many of the infamous cults of the time.
As with all addictions, the first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem. Do we have a problem?
Is there an engagement strategy to be learned by marketers or HR professionals from the “cult of Facebook” addiction?
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego