When people talk about social media, you often hear it described as addictive. “I’m addicted to Twitter/Facebook/StumbleUpon.” One reason people lose track of time when posting on various social media sites, such as blogs, forums, news engines, and social networks, is because such participation actually is highly addictive.
I’m not being metaphorical here. I really do believe that addiction theory applies quite well to social media.
To get into greater depth, we have to look at the work of Eric Berne, 20th century psychologist and father of the branch of psychology known as Transactional Analysis. While Berne’s work was controversial at the time, and has been oversimplified ad infinitum in pop psychology books like I’m OK, You’re OK, the foundational principles behind transactional analysis are generally recognized to be a decent working model of how people relate to one another, and many practicing therapists implement transactional analysis principles in their work.
There’s an excellent online tutorial in the basics of Transactional Analysis here, but the quick and dirty version is that human behavior resembles an economic structure. The basic currency of exchange in this “relationship economy” is called a “stroke.” A stroke is any human interaction. Strokes range in value based on intensity. The greeting you exchange with the barista at Starbucks is a relatively low-value Ritual. Rituals are repetitive, predictable exchanges of low intensity strokes. Up at the higher end of the stroke economy, you have Intimacy (which we’re not touching with a ten foot pole for the purposes of this post) and Games, which are closely associated with the idea of Drama.
Anyone who participates in the blogosphere or other social media should immediately get a mental radar ping from that word, because we all know what Drama means in that sense, and that there’s an abundance of it in social media.
Basic Transactional Analysis theory is that we all have a psychological need for strokes. Most people, even though they may have never heard of Transactional Analysis per se, are familiar with the idea that humans crave the attention of others, and will do whatever they need to do to get it. How many times have you heard a disruptive child’s self-destructive behavior explained by the idea that if you can’t get positive attention, you’ll take whatever attention you can get?
So clearly, these are concepts most people are somewhat familiar with to some degree, in some form.
The next idea I want to throw at you is that particularly in the last few decades or so, Western civilization has experienced some significant disruptions in the traditional stroke economy. As many of the cultural mores and traditions have been eliminated which in previous generations provided a reliable stream of Rituals, Pastimes, and Activities (lower value but more plentiful strokes), people have adapted in different ways to compensate.
Am I saying that because we no longer greet the milkman before we leave in the morning, many of us have never seen our mail carrier face to face, and we bank either online or at an ATM, we are now looking online for Tweets, IMs, pingbacks and Digg Shouts to make up the dropping balance in our human interaction balance sheet?
Well, pretty much, yeah.
There’s another level to this, as well. Remember, it’s not just volume that counts in the stroke economy, it’s also intensity. Social media provides a place for people to exchange some relatively high-intensity strokes. The prevalence of flame wars (heated, often personal and pejorative debates that can devolve into Jerry-Springer-like online free-for-alls) on message boards and blogs, “trolling” (the practice of leaving provocative comments on blogs and forums for the specific purpose of creating conflict), and other generally-unpleasant online activities can be at least in part attributed to the fact that they create drama, in the psychological sense.
While flaming and trolling can be viewed as online versions of transactional analysis Games, all the other levels of time structuring are also available on social media sites, from Rituals on up. I do think that Intimacy occurs online (and no, I’m not talking about “adult” sites), but that’s probably not a subject for this post. I will say that Jonathan Field’s recent post on Awake at the Wheel is relevant to that conversation.
So, in summary,
- By nature, human beings are powerfully compelled to seek interactions with each other. Another word for these human interactions is “strokes“
- We determine our “human interaction balance” (which contributes to our overall feeling of wellbeing) according to both the volume and intensity of the interactions we give and receive.
- As postmodern life and technology decreases the frequency of traditional human interactions, we are compelled to seek alternatives. In other words, most of us are living with at least a mild stroke deficit, much as many of us are living with at least a mild sleep deficit.
- For the postmodern knowledge worker, social media participation provides strokes at all levels of intensity. Depending on how bad our personal stroke deficit is, we may be more powerfully compelled to seek strokes through social media participation. The greater your stroke deficit in the “real world,” the more addictive social media participation will probably be for you.
DISCLAIMER: Bear in mind, I’m just an armchair psychologist and professional storyteller/people-observer. This is just my personal theory, based on what I’ve read and observed. But I think it does explain, at least in part, why social media is so addictive.