Is Facebook bad for you?

It’s not news really that when a “new” technology  turns up there’s a lot of hand wringing and worrying about how it is the end of the world as we know it.  Hard as it seems to believe now, the telegraph was as poorly understood and as worried about in the 1800’s as the internet now.

So that’s why I couldn’t help but sigh when I read this article last week in the NZ Herald entitled “Does Facebook really make people miserable?“.  Not only, as the author rightly points out, was this bad science but there is actually a fair amount of good science that tells us how Facebook (and other social media) is good for us., bad for us and everything in between.

Guyon and I talked about this and how to use Social Media in the most effective ways this week on Radio Live.  (Click here for a link to the audio…)

Firstly, there is a lot of mis-information out there.  Early ideas and stereotypes of geeks in dark bedrooms, anxiously hovering over their keyboards are fading, but did influence some of the early assumptions about the impact of relating to others over the internet.  And this bias affected how people conducted the studies.

One of the big problems with the recent study is it doesn’t make any differentiation as to how people use Facebook, and how different patterns of use can lead to different results.

So how can you use Facebook in a way that increases your happiness and life satisfaction?

First, it seems you are better of if you get involved, be a “liker” not a “lurker”:

“Some people are active users, posting vacation photos and links to videos and clicking “like” on their friends’ posts. Others are passive users who “lurk” invisibly behind the scenes, looking at what other people post, but rarely posting or even liking other posts. It turns out that this passive lurking may be bad for you. The latest research shows that lurkers are a lot less happy than likers on Facebook.” (Click here for the whole article…)

Second, it’s pretty clear that if you use Facebook to connect and stay connected with real, offline friends, it is more effective.  Aleks Krotoski a Social Psychologist and expert in online behavior, in her excellent book on the subject “Untangling the Web” puts it this way:

“By 2002 the online world was helping people make friends.  It also helped them feel less lonely and depressed.  This wasn’t a one off.  Almost every research study since that time has pointed in the same direction: online friendships are not only possible, but people feel less socially isolated when they go online.  And when the online world and the offline worlds co-exist – for instance, when you hang out on Facebook with people you’re connected to at work or school, or you meet up with people at the pub with people you first encountered online – this effect is even more powerful.”  (From “Untangling the Web“)

Third, there is little doubt that Facebook has an impact on our mood, and interestingly it seems Facebook more than other sites.  This research suggests Facebook use is highly correlated with peak flow states, a highly desirable and pleasurable psychological state of arousal (see: “Go with the flow“).  But largely, despite the recent study that made headlines around the world ,it would be fair to say the research is mixed, and tends towards suggesting that online relating has a positive effect on our mood.

The more balanced view is that Facebook engagement accentuates our pre-exisiting mood state: if we feel good and are generally social, Facebook tends to make us feel more of that, and for anxious or isolated individuals it tends to accentuate their sense of isolation.  (For more see this paper from 2009 “The Rich get richer”)

Personally I like to think about all these “online spaces” like they’re real world physical places, it helps me think about how to use them.

So to me, my personal Facebook profile is my virtual living room, a private and personal space where I invite people in, can relax and be myself.  My Facebook Page is like my consulting room, people choose to follow me, and I talk about what I’m professionally and occasionally personally, interested in.  Linkedin is like  a Conference Dinner, professional, work focused and public.  Twitter, well twitter is a cocktail party, a public bar, or the interesting conversation on the train.  You can’t choose who’s there, but you can find plenty of interesting people to talk to.  And some to avoid.

So what do you think? I’d love to hear how you use Facebook and if you think it makes you happy, miserable or both.  Let me know in the comments below, or if you prefer, on my Facebook page (Click here).

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