Is pigging out on Facebook and Twitter just a fad or can it be useful?

To continue to survive, social media needs revenue. But like junk food and daytime TV, the product that sells best may not be good for you. Don Pittis examines whether pigging out online is just a fad, like unhealthy food, or if it's here for the long run.

The economics of social media needs eyeballs and revenue and that may not be good for you

Eyeballs are needed for social media to make money for shareholders, but unless Twitter and Facebook can also prove they are useful, a more tech-savvy generation may decide they are yesterday's fad. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Is it better to be useful or make money? In real life, where some of the most important things we do, from parenting to neighbourly kindness, don't earn a nickel, the answer is a little hard.

In the world of Facebook and Twitter, as in business in general, making money is essential. But it may be that for long-term survival, being useful is far more important.

It seems overly ominous for a company that did better than financial experts were predicting in this week's financial results, but some people are talking about Twitter coming to the end of the line, going the way of Myspace as a takeover target of someone much bigger.

Shredded tweet

That's not what everyone expected when the company launched its shares back in 2013. As an already familiar household name, Twitter was supposed to follow the tech startup pattern and soar like Google and Facebook.
No matter how many 'followers' or 'friends' one has, sometimes everyone, even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, needs a hug. (Reuters)

Upon its results a day after Twitter, Facebook roared even higher as the company goes from financial success to success.

But despite the difference between the two companies, there is something that both have to worry about: falling out of fashion.

A book I never tire of telling people they should read, Robert Putnum's Bowling Alone, marks the postwar decline of socializing in groups. He points to a pile of research that shows having real friends and knowing your neighbours makes you happier, healthier and longer lived.

Friends versus 'friends'

Unfortunately, he says, it is hugs and smiles and personal contact that makes the difference. "Friends" don't count. Neither do "followers."

The social interaction of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and the like must satisfy some of our community-minded urges. Otherwise we wouldn't spend so much time using them.

And if social media can be blamed for increases in gonorrhea and syphilis, there must be at least some contact between "contacts."
The boss of Twitter says the company needs talent to make money. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, seen here, is going one better. (Reuters)

But as a triptych of excellent interviews yesterday on CBC Radio's The Current reminded us, it's possible to get too much of a good thing.

Twitter has many uses. Loved by many of us in the media, it can be shaped into a personalized wire service where you are constantly being updated with the freshest news in your areas of interest.

But it can also be like drinking from a hose, as loyal followers with too many links become so overwhelmed with information that it squirts out their metaphorical noses.

Useful and wasteful

Facebook users say it is great for keeping track of friends and family you don't have time to phone or visit regularly, and provides a wider sample of views and media recommendations. But as a neighbour told me yesterday, she fears her university-aged daughter wastes too much time on Facebook, looking for gossip and tracking down old boyfriends, without too many redeeming benefits.

Research by no less than the U.S. Federal Reserve agrees with my neighbour, according to Peter Reiner, professor at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia.
The decline of bowling — once an activity for the young and dynamic — is part of an overall trend in the postwar era away from socializing in groups. (Reuters)

"What they noticed was that the productivity of workers was rising for quite a number of years and with the introduction of computers it continued to rise until social media showed up," Reiner told Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current.

"It has been flat since social media became so popular," he says. "And they attribute it directly to social media."

And like the old-fashioned TV that your parents always said would rot your brain, attracting hours of eyeball time is the way "free" social media companies make their money says Tristan Harris, who formerly had the wonderful-sounding job of "product philosopher" at Google.

Intentionally addictive

Like gambling machines, he says, the business of social media is built to be addictive.

"So long as the core business model of the internet is advertising, specifically engagement-based advertising, then if I can get eyeballs staring at rectangles for long periods of space and time, that's how I make money," says Harris.

But there are early signs that may be changing. Harris is part of a movement he calls Time Well Spent, that aims to turn the tap and reduce the flow from the hose. He wants to make social media and the entire internet a tool we use when we need it, and leave the rest of our lives for living, maybe by paying for what we want with cash rather than eyeball time.

A young and tech-savvy relative I often quiz on such issues has a fairly distant relationship with social media. He is signed up to most of them, but uses them each for specific purposes. As he pointed out, for a busy technologically aware person, there is too much information out there, not too little.

The internet and all it offers is new enough to be like a candy store. But like the ice cream counter and all-you-can-eat chips at the university cafeteria, it takes a while to realize too much is unhealthy.

It may be that social media will go the same way as junk food, where a little bit is more useful than a lot. 

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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