Facing up to online anxiety

OK, so the social media bubble is about to burst, just like the dotcom one imploded in the early years of this century. Warren Buffet said so and, well, disputing financial advice with the world’s third wealthiest man is an argument that you’ve lost before it started.

OK, so the social media bubble is about to burst, just like the dotcom one imploded in the early years of this century. Warren Buffet said so and, well, disputing financial advice with the world’s third wealthiest man is an argument that you’ve lost before it started.

Besides, the signs are everywhere. The road to Farmville — OK, Facebook, if you insist on its proper name — is now valued at an outrageous $65 billion and Twitter — which started in 2007 and has yet to come up with a stable model for how it will actually make money — is valued at $5 billion.

Don’t get me wrong, I like both Facebook and Twitter. They’re useful tools, especially in the news and communications business. They let us keep in touch with friends and family and keep up to date on a moment-by-moment basis with whatever topic we choose. And with a million people signing up in just 24 hours as followers of Charlie Sheen’s Twitter feed, it’s hard to argue that many others find social media useful too. Shameless plug: That is, if following Charlie Sheen’s antics can be considered useful; try following the Penticton Western News feed if you really want to be kept up to date with information that matters to you.

But it’s also becoming more apparent there is a darker side to social media. Now that the fun of connecting with long-lost friends has started to show some fading around the edges, people are starting to wonder if they should be scheduling their lives around watering virtual pumpkins on virtual farms in a virtual game.

And how well the pumpkins are doing isn’t the only thing that is causing people to get anxious about their Facebook page. Facebook guilt over trying to keep up with all these relationships that you have forged is becoming a recognized phenomenon.

It goes something like this. You start by friending your friends — and yes, I know that is redundant, but this is Facebook speak — and family. While you could have actually just called these folks once in a while, you now get to keep up with their doings on a status by status basis and they with you. Then, lo and behold, an old friend who you haven’t even thought of in years finds you. Cool!

But that’s also the beginning of the Facebook guilt complex. Because sooner or later, someone is going to find you that you would rather not be reconnecting with. And rejecting that friend request is going to stress you out, just like not being able to keep up with all the messages from your new friends is. (And hey, let’s not forget Linkedin, which lets business people stress out over their professional contacts too!)

And it’s not just me making this up as I go along. Well, it is, but I’ve got a study to back me up.

Research released by Edinburgh Napier University earlier this year found that for students using the social media giant, the negative effects of Facebook outweigh the benefits of staying in touch with friends and family.

You thought being the most popular kid in school was easy? Turns out it’s a vortex of despair that pulls harder the more you try to escape.

The more amount of time the students invested in Facebook and the more contacts they had, the more they were likely to be stressed out by it. According to the university study, rejecting friend requests caused 32 per cent of respondents to feel guilty and 12 per cent said Facebook in general made them feel anxious. And don’t forget about the pumpkins on your farm — they’re probably dying off as you read this.

But setting aside cheap shots at Farmville addicts and university studies, it’s easy to see what is happening with social media. It’s the same thing as with dotcoms — all part of something called the Gartner Hype Cycle, which isn’t as difficult to understand as it sounds. It says that people will get really excited about a new technology, reaching a “Peak of Inflated Expectations” which suddenly drops to the opposite extreme, before people figure out its real value and integrate it in a very productive way.

And, it seems, the signs are that social media is about to drop into a very deep “Trough of Disillusionment.” But even so, I’m not going to give up any of my Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Myspace, Foursquare, Weebly, Google Buzz, Ning, Flickr, Digg, Del.icio.us, Ping, Last.FM, Reddit, Ditto apps and sites.




Steve Kidd is a journalist with the Penticton Western News who is getting anxious over posting this column to his Facebook page.


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