Monday, 16 April 2012

'Like' Loneliness

There's a great article over at The Atlantic looking at if Facebook changes the way we interact with people.

While some of the studies show interesting correlations between social behaviour and the way people use Facebook, none can demonstrate causation, which is always much more difficult. It still invites an interesting question; is there something in the mechanics of social networks that encourages shallow relationships over deeper ones?

The main feature of Facebook (or any similar social network) that I think might lead to more, but shallower, friendships is the 'Like' button. There's a phenomenon known as Operant Conditioning, where an individual changes their own behaviour in response to positive on negative reinforcement of that behaviour. If you are rewarded you do it more, if you are punished you do it less.

This is used a lot in computer games to make you keep playing. Just increase one more level, just another 100 gold, just get one more experience point. In many cases it's very lazy games design, but because it's so effective many games use it as a cheap way of keeping you playing. It doesn't matter if it's Farmville of World of Warcraft. Extra Credits has, as always, a great explanation in relation to games design and the use of these Skinner Box techniques.

The Like button probably works in a similar way. We try, how ever much we may deny it, to create updates that attract as many likes they can. The more likes we get, the more popular and loved we think we feel; the ultimate Skinner box reward.

Crucially what this can do is turn affection into a numbers game. If you're trying to get the most likes, then you're not trying to affect any one person deeply, you're trying to get as many people as possible over their like threshold and no more.

Traditionally the rewards of a closer friendship are learning more about the other person, hearing their private worries and being able to do the same in return. Making yourself vulnerable by revealing, unedited, more about yourself, while knowing that your friend won't take advantage of you, gives you confidence as you know you're being accepted for who you are. This doesn't require many friends to do, just a few close ones, and this relationship takes time to build, but the rewards are intrinsic to the relationship. There's no intimacy counter somewhere going up or down.

Instead if you're using that time to get as many likes as possible, you can't build as many deep relationships. You're building your sense of self worth not on your most honest personality, but on the one which gets the most likes.

There are many downsides to this, but two stand out in my mind. The first is that within any social circle it reinforces groupthink, no-one feels they can reveal their divergent opinion. Instead they have to go with the group consensus, even if no-one really agrees, but dare not reveal this to anyone. Or the group has lost touch with reality, but there is no input to ground them. Groupthink is very dangerous.

Second, the biggest worry though is that people will mistake many likes, which require no effort to generate, for deeper friendships than they are. Then in a moment when you really need friends, and think you have many, you discover that they vanish like smoke. They didn't desert you, they were never there. In a dark moment when you really need someone, that could be a crushing blow.

Different people use social networks in different ways, and the above is a worst case. I know many people who use Facebook more like a live address book or a replacement Christmas card list. As long as you make the additional effort for close friends this is fine. But that little counter is a tempting, quantitative indicator and we have to be aware of how little it can mean.