The Spectre of Social Networks
At the tail end of the 19th century Friedrich Nietzsche sensed that there is a spectre hovering over Europe – the spectre of Nihilism. Nihilism is the belief that there is no point in beliefs; life has no purpose or meaning. Nihilism as seen by Nietzsche is ultimately a phenomenon of modernity born by the downfall and dissolution of religious moral doctrine. A modern equivalent to this European spectre will be youth unemployment – it was born after a collapse (albeit a financial one), it is rampant and soul-crushingly demotivating. Latest figures show that EU countries saw an increase in youth unemployment to 23.7% and in Spain to a staggering 55% (1). One does not need to be acquainted with “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” to realize this is a startlingly high figure. In this essay we will examine one of the unexpected consequences of high unemployment and see which business can take advantage of them.
The Most Famous Equation
Inversely-proportional to job opportunities and hope – the amount of aggregate disposable time generated by unemployed youth is vastly rising. An apology to Mr Einstein but the most famous equation in the world is: time=money. But only a certain type of business can truly take advantage of the ocean of disposable time that is currently sloshing in the EU economy. For example, if I run a small café I won’t make much money if customers (for lack of disposable income) only use the restroom and sit around hoovering free Wi-Fi. Especially if we’re dealing with young unemployed people it is close to certain that they will use the free Wi-Fi mostly for one thing: Facebook. Facebook represents the new breed of business which can take advantage of economic downturns. This calls for a retrospect where we shall see how in the past mounting pressure of bad economic conditions is handled by people.
Opium of the People
When the weight of a cruel and arbitrary world becomes a heavy burden people try to escape reality. The means of achieving escapism have been different throughout the ages. Early 18th century London went through a period known as the “Gin Craze” – when gin consumption rapidly increased among the low classes. The underlying reason for the “Gin Craze” was rapid urbanization which moved large swaths of provincial people into the dirty, hostile and overcrowded city. Sobriety seemed extremely overrated and gin provided the most affordable anaesthesia against reality (2).
Gin may have fallen out of fashion but other less liquid forms of escapism emerged. One of the few businesses that thrived during the Great Depression in the US was the movie industry (3). The Great Depression produced the highest-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation) “Gone with the Wind” while the Great Recession (post 2008) produced the highest grossing movie unadjusted for inflation – “Avatar” (3).
The urge for escapism is a constant companion in the poverty-stricken communities across the world. Researchers who went to interview the poorest residents of a few Moroccan villages were surprised to find that most of them had a TV set and a DVD player (4). These people had no indoor plumbing or sanitation. One of the villagers even joked that watching television is more important than food.
The Anatomy of an Addiction
It’s not far-fetched to assume Facebook as the next generation of gin or sit-com which can soak up the extra free time and depression generated by economic downturns. Let’s take a hypothetical unemployed graduate named Bob in order to examine how Facebook ensnares people who have lots of time to kill. Every time an icon lights red informing Bob of a new event, message, or a friend request his brain gets a jolt of dopamine. Dopamine is a substance in the brain which controls motivation and the sense of reward - not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them (5). Dopamine is cooperating with the opioid system which is responsible for the sensation of pleasure we feel after an activity. Suffice to say, dopamine (wanting) is stronger than the opioid system (liking). That is why when Bob sees the familiar “new message” icon lit in red his curiosity is stronger than the subsequent pleasure from opening it.
Facebook also produces pleasure from a process call “social affirmation” (6). Social affirmation is a fundamental human desire: the need to be recognised and acknowledged. Interestingly, if people cannot obtain positive affirmation they will sometimes seek negative one – anything that strokes the ego with the hairbrush of relevance. The genius behind Facebook (sorry Mark) is that it is all about “me” or Bob in this case. In normal and now terribly obsolete vis-à-vis conversations people spend 30-40% of the time talking about their subjective experiences. Over social networks this percentage goes up to 80% (7) – thus we strive more towards it. Moreover, face-to-face conversations require exertion of effort while Facebook is several clicks away.
Through frequent and prolonged Facebook sessions a habit is formed. This is absolutely normal: the human brain will try to turn any repetition of actions (physical or mental) into a habit because it constantly tries to save effort (8). One study has found that 40% of daily human actions are actually habits (8). In most cases this is very useful since it would be inconvenient (for example) to relearn how to ski every time we are away from the mountain slopes. The problem is that the brain does not distinguish between helpful and damaging habits. Habits do not really go away: ex-smokers can attest how easy it is to slip back into the old routine.
Being unemployed graduate Bob has lots of free time where the habit of interacting on Facebook can grow unrestricted by the disciplining effect of a full workday schedule. The more a habit is repeated the deeper it is ingrained in the brain structure (8). However, Facebook Inc. does not necessarily make more money by indoctrinating young and hopelessly unemployed people who spend more hours on the social network. High 3 | P a g e unemployment signals bad economic conditions which mean that marketing coffers of companies are severely depleted. Advertisement is the lifeblood of Facebook and the company’s success is measured in revenue not user engagement (although it’s a crucial metric which may increase investors’ confidence). Facebook can really cash in on the indoctrinated youth when economic conditions improve and marketing budgets are a lot more generous.
Eventually the economic see-saw will tip in favour of strong GDP growth. Bob and millions of other young adults like him will land a respectable job. Here lies the difference between Facebook and other addictions caused or exacerbated by economic downturns: when times improve the newly hired employees cannot bring their newly-acquired addictions to the workplace. A supervising manager might get suspicious if Bob loudly sips whiskey or play World of Warcraft on his laptop. Smoking is forbidden inside buildings and watching sit-coms is uncomfortable on a small screen.
Catching forbidden glimpses of one’s own Facebook profile is both possible (through smartphone) and almost impossible to curtail. The importance of social networks in the workplace is more than mere speculation. An extensive study by Cisco (9) found that graduates and young professionals are led by new requirements when considering an employment opportunity: “open environment that accommodates social media and device freedom”. They are ready to accept smaller salaries for the liberté of social media consumption in the workplace. This free-market unionization reflects the change in habits of young people.
The Times They Are a-Changin'
Perhaps it is unfair to single out one social network when there are so many other widely used alternatives. I used Facebook merely as a collective image and thus the same reasoning applies to other highly addictive social networks. In the end we can observe like Mark Twain how “history does not repeat itself, but often rhymes”. Bad economic conditions and lack of employment opportunities force some unwelcome habits on the general public. However, the exact type of habits and their effects have changed throughout the years. One of the badly understood consequences of the 2008 Financial Crisis may be the spectre of social networks which haunts us even in the workplace.
- Sedhi, Amy. “Unemployment in Europe: get the figures for every country”; The Guardian 8th January 2013, url: http://goo.gl/xfl4w
- Shirky, Clay. “Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age”. ePenguin, 2010.
- Lev-Ram, Michal. “The box office indicator”; CNN.com, http://goo.gl/bHPzk
- Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo. Poor economics: a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty. PublicAffairs, 2011.
- Dopamine jolt behind internet addiction; 3rd January 2013, FT.com, url: http://goo.gl/DmCkR
- Toma, Catalina L., and Jeffrey T. Hancock. "Self-Affirmation Underlies Facebook Use." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39.3 (2013): 321-331.
- Tamir, Diana I., and Jason P. Mitchell. "Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.21 (2012): 8038-8043.
- Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why we do What we do in Life and Business. Doubleday Canada, 2012.
- “The New Workplace Currency – It's Not Just Salary Anymore: Cisco Study Highlights New Rules for Attracting Young Talent Into the Workplace”. November 2011. Cisco.com; url: http://goo.gl/oIq59
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