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Addressing the Addiction and Cost of Social Media

Have you ever found yourself asking, “Where did the last hour go?” when connecting with friends or colleagues in social networks? Social media is like a drug; just a little taste and we can’t help but want more. Social networks are the drug dealers; they facilitate our addiction to this gateway drug with one-click access to our social graph and a multitude of other sites and apps. They’ve gamified the experience to appeal to our human needs so well that Maslow himself would weep with pride. With each click, we enter a maze of endless possibilities, often ending up in networks or conversations that have nothing to do with our initial reasons for logging in.

social media addiction


We’ve eagerly plugged our lives into the social net and have willingly accepted the costs. Yet, it seems that we’ve really not understood what those costs are. One can argue that we acknowledge the costs when we check the “accept terms and conditions” box upon registering in another social network, but in reality, we’re ignorantly signing over a blank check. People are beginning to realize these costs — in many cases, only when it’s too late:

1. Time
The question of whether social media is a productive or distracting force in our lives is fodder for another article. The fact remains that we’ve all agreed to invest our time in this activity. According to Nielsen and NM Incite’s The Social Media Report 2012, consumers continue to spend more time on social networks than on any other type of Internet site. Twenty percent of the total time we spend online is on personal computers and 30 percent via mobile devices. And it’s increasing. As of July 2012, the total time spent accessing and engaging in social media sites has increased 37 percent in the U.S., representing 121 billion minutes (up from 88 billion minutes the year before).

2. Emotion
Social media is often criticized for creating a culture of “over-sharing.” Real-time connectivity via mobile devices and one-click “share to other network” options in mobile apps means we have the option to share the minutiae of our lives: what we we’re thinking, eating, watching, reading or doing. Opening ourselves up in this manner is an emotional investment. We put a bit of ourselves into every post and with each share we’re creating a digital version of ourselves, which isn’t necessarily a constructive outlet. For example, a study by the University of Waterloo as reported in Psychological Science demonstrated that Facebook engagement can increase the likelihood of depression in some people. They found that those with low self-esteem tend to express a lot of negative emotion and little positive emotion. Not surprisingly, the reactions received from others weren’t good; people with low self-esteem were liked less. Social media can take an emotional toll on all of us.

3. Privacy
Privacy is the price that I’m most surprised we’re willing to pay for access to social networking. As suggested in the previous point, every social media activity creates a digital version of you, but not just for you. Every time you register or log in, even for something as simple as performing a Google search, you’re establishing a personal profile about yourself within the data repositories of social networks like Facebook and Google+. Social networks track when and how often you perform certain tasks, what you’re engaged in and with whom. The marketing spin they offer is that this allows them to provide you a better user experience, yet we all know it’s simply to learn more about you. Your data is currency. The more personal the information they can acquire the more they can charge advertisers for access to you.

This is the addiction and cost of social media. Time, emotion and privacy are offered up too willingly for a not-so-quick hit.

Businesses and marketing strategists would be well served if they kept this in mind when designing customer experience in online social communities. Where customers many not readily identify the costs they’re paying for social engagement with your brand, they’re certainly feeling it subconsciously. Imagine the impact of a brand’s online community that mitigates the risks associated with the user’s social media fatigue? 

How do your customers feel about their cost to engage online? Do you know? Is it even an important consideration for brands developing social media strategies? Add your thoughts and experiences to the discussion in the comments section below.

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

Image Credit: Pixabay, licensed via Creative Commons
A version of this post was originally written for my regular Huffington Post column that appeared on February 24th, 2013.


Join the Conversation

dbvickery 5pts

I left a comment on your original Huffington Post article, but I'll summarize. I agree with those Time/Emotion/Privacy costs, and it is interesting just how much privacy folks will give up for a more personalized experience. I'm in that camp. I'd rather see the Facebook sidebar light up with a tennis ad or book announcement of a favorite author (I didn't say *YOU* were a favorite author even though I'm looking forward to Influence Marketing) vs some blue pill based upon simple demographic info.

Regarding emotion, I'd throw "Relationships" in there too. Our face-to-face relationships suffer, or never materialize, because of how much time and emotion we invest in the online world. Gotta have balance...

chieflemonhead 5pts

Another good one, Sam.

There is, of course, a cost for both the participation and non-participation in social networks. What I find interesting, however, is what does it tell us about society when we see so many people "addicted" to digital social participation? In fact, I recently heard a report stating that people find it easier to "truly be themselves" via social networks - likely due to the protection of the "screen". This can create a platform where people feel it appropriate to be negative because they don't have to put on a brave face since, in their opinion, no one is actually watching them. This doesn't make it right - it just makes it a fact.

On the flipside, I've seen people deliberately choose who they follow/friend or fan - as well as purge those who follow/friend or fan them to curate only the positive emotions. I've seen social networks change societies (Egypt, for example) and give voices to people who never had one (@hardlynormal on twitter on behalf of homeless people). Social has so much power and value, and we the people, must learn to navigate and use this new tool for good.

As a brand, we need to understand the pros and cons. We need to understand how social connections can positively change the world, and negatively damage communities. We need to understand how fragile our consumers are - psychologically and emotionally, whether they consciously know it or not. And, we need to run our business too!

It is my humble opinion that brands need to consider their role in positive community participation, and in recognizing the impact social networks have on their consumers. In approaching and applying the art of social in a way that will support and facilitate our consumer's experiences with these networks, the brand will secure its longevity. Like in all other facets of marketing and branding, I believe that seeking the quick ROI hit without consideration for the human impact along the way can, perhaps, deliver results for today but is much more likely to hinder our sustainability in the long run.


Dave Thompson
Dave Thompson 5pts

Nicely written. We really need someone to show us the way and take us away from this addiction or else we will seriously need some drugs to get out of it. But sometimes engaging do helps in lowering the stress as there are chances of getting someone to share your thoughts. Being on Social Media keeping the limits in mind can make the difference.

Shonali 5pts

Like @AmyMccTobin I too have started shutting down the socnets during the day - literally, I close the tabs. Otherwise I can't focus on the actual work at hand. And when I *am* doing my social media *thing* that's all I do - like right now, I'm going through Triberr, checking FB & Twitter, etc. - and I will do this for a few minutes more, probably also comment on a few blogs/reply to comments on my blog - and then that will be it for a few hours (normally at least until mid-afternoon, but today is an exception because of #measurePR). 

I have absolutely seen that the opportunity cost of NOT engaging - from a business development point of view - is significant, so it's something I can't afford to cut out. Nor do I want to, I like to do it.

This is a great question, Sam: "How do your customers feel about their cost to engage online?" If ok with you, I will adapt and post to my Facebook Page and see what, if any, the answers are, and of course share with you & cite, perhaps in a future blog post... are you ok with that?

Latest blog post: The Arrogance Of Being Right

AmyMccTobin 5pts

My name is Amy Tobin and I am a Socialholic.  I have been pondering this more and more as my days get busier, and I've literally shut down social networks for a few hours a day at least.  I've been dropping more and more of the negative people because it wears on me.

Here's what I think about Brands and this issue: it makes your schedule calendar, the TIME you post, even more important.  It is my guess that people trolling during the day, during work hours, in general may be the more depressed, less focused, perhaps not high earners?  Focusing on the time that your consumer is on Social to spend time casually - Saturday mornings, Sunday evenings perhaps?   is essential.

Of course it all depends upon what you're selling, and who your target market is.  


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