THE BLOG

The Social Media Paradox

05/02/2014 12:24 GMT | Updated 06/04/2014 10:59 BST

In a 2007 study from the Journal of Economic Psychology - "Does Watching TV Make Us Happy" - behavioural economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer concluded that not only do unhappy people watch more television than those who are happy, but TV-watching displaces activities - especially social ones - that create longer-term gratification. Similarly, in an article titled 'Why Viewers Watch' published 13 years earlier, Jim Fowles, a writer for the Canadian Journal of Communication, noted:"Television viewing has come to displace principally (a) other diversions, (b) socialising, and (c) sleep".

Then in the early 2000s something called 'social media' appeared, a new type of social lubricant for the 21st century that transformed the way society used its free time. For the first time in history people started watching less TV than their elders, turning away from passive consumption and towards active participation - a phenomenon that many social theorists believed would help humanity fulfil its 'naturally social' agenda.

But has it?

Creating coordination

On the one hand it has. Practical problems like commuting can now be taken on in a social way through sites like PickupPal.com, a carpooling site that works predominantly with organisations to help co-ordinate drivers planning to travel along the same route. The model is simple: a driver proposes a price for the ride and if the passenger agrees, the system puts them in touch. PickupPal.com also integrates with Facebook and other social mediums to improve the likelihood of a match - a strategy that has worked quite well so far: according to data displayed on the company's website, PickupPal.com has over 170,000 members and 148,000 routes that span 124 countries.

Social media has also helped mobilise large crowds of (peaceful) demonstrators to the extent that governments have been forced to overturn international agreements. A pertinent example is the re-opening of the Korean market to U.S beef in 2003 which, due to the longevity of the protests that took place and the sheer scale of the participants involved, forced an entire cabinet to resign and placed additional restrictions on all unwanted beef imported from the United States.

These are two examples of social media promoting human interaction for things that matter, things that should be challenged and things that require change in the real world. And in my opinion it should go no further than this.

Displacing palpability

The problem, however, is that for many of us, typically younger groups, social media is fast becoming the catalyst leading to a rapid reduction in social capital, just like the television once was. Worrying, it is contributing significantly to one of the most common ailments that exists in the modern world: loneliness.

Why?

Instead of promoting physical human interaction through social networks human beings are using these platforms to present their selves to the world exactly how they want to be presented, virtually. This is not to say that we don't attempt to fulfill this desire face-to-face, but in an environment where we can hide within the four walls of our bedrooms we have become increasingly obsessed with choosing the photos for our online profiles in which we look our best and the perfect choice of words for our next message to our 500-plus 'friends'. We are, more and more, focusing our attention on piecing together the perfect 'digital self' to form connections rather than meeting person-to person to form true friendships through proper conversation.

The great thing about the dynamic of a 'proper conversation' is doubt - an appropriate attitude to have in order to establish authenticity and truth. We don't always know how we will be observed or perceived when we meet with people eye-to-eye and this is humble because, whatever the outcome, it is at least a true reflection of who we are. The former, which attempts to perpetuate perfection, is a robotic and fabricated disposition that is the opposite and not representative of our naturally social makeup.

This is the social media paradox. It can be the connective tissue of society and also society's worst enemy. The key to exploiting the advantages of the new 'social transformation' is not to necessarily to understand the technology, but to understand ourselves first.