The imperceptible impact of social media on our everyday lives

The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself” – John F. Kennedy

In her last blog post, Gaelle wrote about the impact our friends can have on our purchasing decisions through social media and I wanted to follow up with my own thoughts on the subject.

While I think it’s interesting to explore how the potential to share more experiences with more friends is an evolutionary step in word-of-mouth marketing, I remain convinced that the biggest impact social media has is on our own everyday behaviour, not our friends or followers.

The potential to document our lives online means that a status update on Facebook, Tweet or Instagrammed photo doesn’t just become a record or reflection of our behaviour but a direct cause of it.

Whether it’s purposefully reading articles to find quotes we think our Twitter followers will find interesting, or making choices about our weekend activities to share on Facebook in the hope they will make us appear cultured or popular, we’re not only increasingly documenting our lives online but are making decisions with the knowledge that we will subsequently share them through social media.

It’s why the idea that social media is frivolous and independent of the ‘real world’ is not only short-sighted but, when more than half of the UK and US population is on Facebook, anthropologically ignorant too.

The medium is the message

I’ve written before about how the motivation to share our thoughts on social media is subtly shaped by the sites we use and it’s those social networks that quantify our success with statistical feedback (such as the number of re-tweets, likes or comments) that, by appealing to our ego (and exploiting our free time), are most successful.

The consistently excellent Cyborgology blog recently speculated how different Facebook would be if you removed likes, comments and friend counts.  In other words, taking away the motivating metrics that spur us to use the site and lure our friends back each day.

The Machine Starts also wrote an insightful post on Facebook last year in which he highlighted how the site’s developers had built “many functions to encourage the narcissist, but no tools to dismantle him”.

In a long but fascinating essay on The New Inquiry, Rob Horning wrote about the “two-pronged threat of invisibility”, that underpins our continued use of these sites:

(1) participation in social media seems economically necessary under a neoliberal organization of work within a so-called attention economy. Self-surveillance yields self-branding, a packaging of the self to accommodate precarious economic conditions (one must be flexible, one must put the total personality to work in productivity, and so on).

(2) social media seems experientially necessary to secure a sense of social belonging and ontological security. To have a stable sense of self that is “relevant,” an identity with “integrity”, with credibility on the burgeoning reputation market administered by Facebook and other online identity repositories.

It’s precisely because of the addictive nature of the statistical feedback these sites provide that we keep coming back to share our thoughts and experiences.

It’s also how and why they shape, not only the decisions we take about what to share but, crucially, the plans we undertake because of the intention to subsequently share them.

Or, as the University of Maryland’s Nathan Jurgenson describes it: “Our brains [are] always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and “likes”.”

Social media and influence

“To understand the influence of social media you need to go beyond mentions and take two more steps – ascertain how those mentions translate into reach and figure out how the impact in the social media world leads to changes in perception and behaviour in the real world”  – Stephen Shakespeare, YouGov

The more we use social media, the more it creeps into our consciousness and unwittingly impacts the decisions we make.

It’s why, from a research perspective, it’s important to not only think of a post on social media merely in terms of how many people it has reached, and what evidence we can find as to how it has impacted others, but to see it as a direct record of an experience that has been influenced by the medium on which it has been shared on, prior to the event itself.