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The Human Cost of Social Connectivity

The Egyptian Revolution is a historical event for many reasons, not the least of which is the relentless dedication of human will to overcome tyranny against all odds. For those who study social networks, the revolution is also of course significant because of the role Facebook and Twitter played in the concentration of discontent and the orchestration of upheaval. For the purpose of this discussion, I would like to focus on how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networks continue to demonstrate the revolutionary effects of network density and continue to escalate the promise of social connectivity as part of our digital sustenance.

Over the years, we’ve learned the importance of social media in our professional and personal lives. It is after all a revolution in of itself. From improving governments to socializing businesses to improving collaboration and learning to investing in personal development, social media is influencing and reshaping all it touches. But there are very real costs associated with social media and they extend well beyond technology, popular networks, trends or monumental events.

You are here because you live and breathe new media and with each day that passes, you place unprecedented value on social and mobile networks and the role they play in your livelihood. Your experiences are incredibly personal, but are also influenced by your connections. The value you glean from each network is directly correlated to the relationships you forge within each network. The content that you curate, create, and consume dictates the focus and significance of your interest graphs.  The gravity that attracts people and information to your egosystem is essentially yours and only yours to define. And, that’s the point of this post. We must study the human cost of social media to improve how it is we adopt and employ it in life, study, and work.

Aside from the inherent value of connections, engagement, and information commerce, understanding the human cost tied to social networking will help us focus precious resources to prioritize desired benefits and outcomes.

The human cost of social media is something we’re learning as we go and the price we pay for the benefits of connectivity starts with an exchange of privacy for a new era of publicy, or as Jeff Jarvis refers to i,t publicness. Privacy as we once knew it is over. The values of privacy are sacred as are the opportunities tied to living in public. Perhaps as valuable and sacred as privacy, we must also explore another human cost of social media…time.

We all know very well that activity within social networking can lead to distractions. With one click, we can find ourselves hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of fascinating experiences that have nothing to do with our initial focus. Serendipity is part of the splendor of social media, but it is something that necessitates discipline to learn, entertain and be entertained, while also staying the course. In the end, we exchange time and privacy for exposure and attention.

In addition to time and privacy, we learn that the human cost of social media is also emotion. We indeed invest a bit of ourselves in each new connection and form of expression we publish. We say a bit about who we are in all we create and share. Our actions and words put the “me “in social media and as time passes we construct a digital persona that reflects a vision of how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen.

As in anything, when we invest emotion, we expend a great deal of energy and passion all for the promise of reactions, connections, and a sense of significance. And at the end of each day, we’re simply exhausted. Whether we realize it or not, fatigue is an inevitable product of engagement. From Social Network Fatigue to Deals Fatigue to Follow Fatigue, we are slowly realizing that we are not invincible. We are not without a very tangible perimeter of limitations.

How many networks do you call home? How many social and interest graphs are you shaping? I’m sure many of you are at least active in four or more networks including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, FourSquare, Flickr, or Google Plus.

During the beta launch of Google +, I conducted a survey that asked those new to Google+ if they planned on abandoning their Facebook presences as a result of joining the new network. The response was surprising as I did not expect the number of people who would express social network fatigue.

The reality is that the cost of social networking is great and without checks and balances, engagement can cost us more capital than we have to spend. The net result is then social and emotional bankruptcy. And, the most difficult part of this unfortunate state is that it is at first difficult to recognize and far more exacting to overcome.

There’s a saying, “everything in moderation,” but it’s impossible to explore these new horizons with anything less than exuberance. This is our time and who we are online and in the real world is ours to define. But without ambition, desire, and focus, social media is a recipe for chaos. Through all of the distractions and fatigue, we must continually renew our focus to bring important goals to life based on our actions and words in each social network.

I ask you to pause for a moment. Think about what it is that inspires you. Think about what it is you are trying to achieve. Now, look at what it is you’re doing today and compare these activities and results to your aspirations. Do this at fixed intervals over time to plot your position and look ahead to where it is you’re hoping to reach. Then ask yourself, “am I on the right path?” Never stop asking that question.  The answers are more important than you might think.

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72 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Human Cost of Social Connectivity”

  1. Kelly Lux says:

    Brian, great post…but the editing is terrible.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Cutting out some sleep can help you find some more time for it all.  We really don’t need more than about 4 hours of sleep a night anyways.

  3. Joann Sondy says:

    Amen! I got burned out on all the social streaming this spring and just now defining my contribution going forward.  You can have your badges, klout and social currencies… I just don’t care. I really don’t want to know who’s checkin’ in at any given coffee shop. Contribution and sharing with a sprinkling of personal tweets will be my theme going forward because I find that my time spent working on client relationships and design/creating products is has become more important.

  4. resume says:

    very cool post! thanks a lot for sharing!

  5. Adam says:

    Awesome post!

  6. Beth Kanter says:

    Brian:  There’s another human cost and you touch on it with the distraction issues.    But, having the constant flow of information at us – like we do on social networks — actually changes our brains – and can impair out ability for deep reflective thought.    Or at least switching back and forth from the way our brain processes fast-paced information and deeper thought/concentration.       The same thing happens with relationship – with more people to interact with and we do it in a faster, superficial way – makes it harder for slower, more reflective online conversations.

    Have you read Nicolas Carr, The Shallows?   Pretty enlightening.     

  7. Excellent article yet again Brian.  The balance unfortunately is being tipped with our teenagers.  It is essential for us as parents – and social media players – to help our teens navigate this brave new world.  We are at a true turning point in our evolution as human beings and our teenagers are at the forefront of this change, because it is their world we are now creating.  As their brains are developing, so to is their interconnection to massive amounts of data. So our role is to provide wisdom-based guidance so the ‘connected’ generation are also connected to a deep, reflective, wisdom based set of values and virtues.  As Beth said – “social networking does change our brains and impair the ability for deep thought”.  We must help our young people find that balance. 

  8. Over time I believe we learn to “bucketize” information filtering out the noise and allowing deeper concentration. It’s like anything else. Great article.

  9. We truly do get out what we put in for social media.  Engaging with people and companies or groups that we are truly interested in should bring enjoyment and entertainment.  When we follow something because its cool or we were into something and lost interest SMF can easily set in.  Staying on top of trends and being unique, interesting and engaging can also lead to burnout if its not something that brings you happiness to do.

  10. Well what i really like is “The Distance Between Who I am and Who I want to be is separated only by my Actions and Words” totally agreed and appreciate your thinking Brian. 

  11. If you only read one article on social networking – make it this one. There is a cost to social networking and to make it work you have to identify what you want from the process as Brian so clearly explains.  I’d vote it my article of the year.

  12. TJ Ojehomon says:

    I heard two very significant points here. The first is the point of “publicness.” If you have ever signed up to purchase, join, or interact with a website, your information is available. It doesn’t matter how many privacy settings we use, it doesn’t matter how many photos we think we keep from the public, nor does it matter if we think our information is only set to be viewed by our circle of friends. If your on the web, your info is there. This is the biggest risk of social media. Secondly, the whole point of social network fatigue is interesting. Just the other day, my Facebook post was 
    “Anybody else get the feeling that social media ain’t as exciting anymore?” More than a few friends responded with a like. It seems that we continue to engage in a repetitive form of communication that will eventually only lead to our demise, as we’ve seen with cyber bullying, blackmailing, and even damaging our reputation by expressing things through media that we never would in person. I’m interested to see where this road of social media ultimately leads us. 

  13. I really don’t think any of us have a clue what we are living through at the moment in terms of change and the way we can communicate openly. I think we all take it a little bit for granted. Our connected lifestyles might have consequences further down the line though. We all consume so much information right now that I’m not sure if we can take in any more yet the technology is moving so fast that we will of course constantly be doubling our consumption of data. It’s all rosy at the moment but it might not end well!!

  14. Awesome post! this topic is interested for me!

  15. Brian, great piece. Your post reminds me of something I was once told by a senior PR manager. She said, that “we’re in an age where it’s not about work/life balance, but work/life integration.” This integration brings with it as you’ve pointed out, a human cost. My question to you and to everyone on this trail is: where do we draw the line when it comes to “connectivity?” Studies have shown that there’s an inverse relationship between the number of connections & relationships we have and the quality of those relationships. I fear we’re reaching a point of saturation and as the first generation of “social media influencers” we can compare things now to thing “then” (pre-high-speed internet). But as Sally points out below, what happens to the next generation as they take the lead from us? Without any comparison to what “it was like back in the day?” These are answers I don’t have, but questions I think about on a day-to-day basis working in social media and PR.

  16. Keir Harness says:

    On the money Brian, the philosophical and sociological impact of Social Media are hard to ignore. Questions of how we shape the self and our perceptions of reality will be the subject of increased debate over the next two to three years 

  17. Timharrap says:

    A great post which sums up the pressures involved with the new media. What is emerging from this new environment and noted in the article and the commentary is the growing awareness of self at the core of one’s identity. All the connections and contributions made use up emotional energy and peel back the layers of your onion (!) so we are finally getting to identify our own inner essence – to ourselves. Currently there is a cost but in the longer term the benefits will be greater immersion in the self, so strengthened, hierarchies will be weakened by stronger more centred individuals and their networks. Fortune favours the brave.

  18. Lee Andrese says:


  19. Hi Brian, Everything you said in this article, I find absolutely correct! Yes, everyone tends to feel some kind of fatigue because every click comes with a “price”.  This reminds me of what Marshall McLuhan once said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us.” Great article! A must-read! 

  20. ashutosh nigam says:

    thanks for sharing all the points

  21. Your articles are always wonderful, and this is no different.

    I think if people are feeling fatigued on the issue, they should absolutely be cutting out what doesn’t work for them. There’s something useful and fulfilling for everyone out there, they just have to find it. Social media has such a huge impact on everything we do now–especially relationships. It’s amazing that there are still individuals who haven’t realized that.

  22. Nick Sweeney says:

    Thank you for not adding any links in the paragraph about distractions.
    But you more than made up for it with the links about fatigue. Let me
    add at least one more:

    Social media, like beer, is great – when used in moderation. Getting ALL
    of your “social” interaction digitally though doesn’t seem like the
    type of world I would want to live in, though. The great thing about the
    “screen me” is that I can choose how I am perceived, but it is always
    shinier than the “real me”.

    It will be interesting to see if future generations notice and turn away
    from these costs you mention. I know for my money, I’d rather play a
    game of Scrabble with actual pieces of wood (and humans) rather than a
    game of Words With Friends.

  23. Ying says:

    A great post, I suffer from social network fatigue sometimes, but I got so used to this and I open subconsciously every sites everyday whenever I want, even I’m in the middle of work. Yes, I feel sad that even web browsers offer apps like internet access controller to limit the use of internet, mainly social media sites. Besides time, privacy, emotion and fatigue, social media influence another touch that people tend to stare more at the computer screen than having real eye contacts or talks with their families and friends. The ties are cooling down, this is really sad.

  24. Leon Chia says:

    Really appreciate the bit about investment of emotion. Admittedly I often try to gauge what kind of emotional reaction I might get when I participate. Others have to invest in my content as well. When I blog (about my favourite composer), it takes a huge amount of emotional energy to write just one article. Frankly I find it mentally exhausting, but it’s worth it.

  25. Humberto Velleca says:

    Brian, I thingk people cannot exercize precise and efectively enough at their (at least mine) workplace because they don’t have the “necessary tools” for that, don’t have the platform for communcation and value extraction from every human interaction needed, with the infinte refinement that software products can provide. We live in the stone age.
    This was such an inspiring post.
    Keep pushing!!!

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