Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Facebook as a social cheeseburger

I'm generally wary of the word addiction. It seems too easy to label any behaviour performed to excess as an addiction. In the old days addiction was used to refer exclusively to the misuse of pharmaceutical products (alcohol, drugs) that exert their effects by way of a direct tinkering with neurochemistry. Further, it seems that the word addiction can be used as a means to exculpate the individual from personal responsibility. We hear of sex addiction, shopping addiction and gambling addiction -- the old-style response would have been "pull yourself together and take control of your life". Nowadays such people are looked upon sympathetically and described as having 'a disease'.

But hang on. If we accept pharmaceutical addiction as real should we not accept behavioural addictions as real also? After all they affect the same reward systems and neurochemical pathways as do drugs; they just do it indirectly rather than directly. Cocaine and, say, sex have similar effects on the neurotransmitter dopamine, so it seems churlish to refer to a craving for the former as an addiction and the latter as not.

But what about Facebook addiction? Is it possible to describe excessive use of Facebook as an addiction? The fact is that many so-called "internet addictions" are misnamed. People aren't really addicted to the internet per se (the internet is just a bunch of cables, routers and protocols, after all) what they are addicted to are online services. So people with "internet addictions" have addictions to online gambling, pornography, shopping and the like.

So a Facebook addiction is probably a social addiction but the notion of a social addiction still seems odd. You might well consider someone who morbidly browses eBay for hours on end a shopping addict, but is it possible to be a social addict?

Consider a person who spends 5 hours of their day chatting to friends face to face or on the phone, is that person a social addict? What about someone who spends 10 hours doing it? We probably all know people who find it difficult to spend time on their own, who find that they always have to be engaging in social interaction with others, however trivial. Although these people can be irritating -- especially when you have work to be getting on with -- we would probably never think of them as being social addicts.

Interestingly if you look at the synonyms for "sociable"

accessible, affable, approachable, close, clubby, companionable, conversable, convivial, cordial, familiar, genial, good-natured, gregarious, intimate, neighborly, regular, social, warm.

All positive, things you want to be.

And here are the antonyms.

introverted, snobbish, unfriendly, unkind, unsociable

All negative

My point is that our language enshrines our view on sociability, it is seen as a good thing to be sociable and a bad thing to be unsociable. Is there even a word that means "excessively sociable"? Is there such a thing as an "excessive social personality". A few minutes on the internet suggested not. All I found were webpages on William's syndrome a chromosomal disorder that, among other things, leads individuals to excessive sociability. This is seldom seen as a problem apart from the fact that their generally low IQ can lead to them being overly trusting and ripe for exploitation.

So there is no such thing as social addiction (at least not yet) and there are no words to describe personalities that crave the interaction of others. But interact with other people through a computer and hey presto you have a "social media addiction" or a "Facebook addiction" (Google them).

Here is the way I think of it. Salt, fat and sugar are essential for life but were rare in our ancestral environment so we developed a strong preference for their flavour to ensure that when we got them we ate as much as we could. This strong preference is now problematical as the industrial manufacture of foods makes them plentiful. We repeatedly gorge ourselves on each cheeseburger as if it were the last with the result that we become fat. Likewise as social species we evolved an obsession with the lives of others we need to know where we are in the pecking order, who's doing what to (and with) whom, who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down. Facebook presents us with all of this stuff on one easily digestible site so we gorge ourselves. But what are the negatives?

Hard to say. Aric Sigman thinks using Facebook will lead to poor mental and physical health ("Facebook gives you cancer" the headlines screamed) and there are plenty of others out there who will reach for their apparently endless supply of non sequiturs and present poorly constructed hypotheses as fact (but enough about Susan Greenfield).

Many of these arguments rest on the premise that people are neglecting their "real" (by which they invariably mean face-to-face) friends preferring to chat with their online friends (who, if you read the Daily Express, are a collection of men pretending to be women, paedophiles, stalkers, identity thieves, spammers and psychopaths). But most online friends are offline friends so most aren't neglecting these relationships and there is no evidence that use of Facebook leads to a decrease in face to face activity.

If Facebook addiction truly an addiction with no consequence? The fag that doesn't give you cancer, the booze that doesn't bloat your liver, the cheeseburger that doesn't make you fat?