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The Addiction and Cost of Social Media

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Have you ever found yourself asking, "Where did the last hour go?" when connecting with friends or colleagues in social networks? Social media is like a drug; just a little taste and we can't help but want more. Social networks are the drug dealers; they facilitate our addiction to this gateway drug with one-click access to our social graph and a multitude of other sites and apps. They've gamified the experience to appeal to our human needs so well that Maslow himself would weep with pride. With each click, we enter a maze of endless possibilities, often ending up in networks or conversations that have nothing to do with our initial reasons for logging in.

These networks, as well as the ecosystem of data centers and software developers that been erected around them, do not provide this access out of the goodness of their hearts. It's a business, and as with all businesses, there's a cost required to purchase their products and services. Yet, most social networks and associated apps don't charge any money for their services. So what price do we pay?

I'll answer that with the old adage: "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product." And that's the real cost of social media access: becoming a product. Advertising and sponsorships keep the lights on in your favorite social networks and what they pay for is access to you. The more we engage, the more the networks track and analyze. The more they track and analyze, the more they can charge advertisers. What does "becoming a product" really mean? What are the tangible costs we pay?

We've eagerly plugged our lives into the social net and have willingly accepted the costs. Yet, it seems that we've really not understood what those costs are. One can argue that we acknowledge the costs when we check the "accept terms and conditions" box upon registering in another social network, but in reality, we're ignorantly signing over a blank check. People are beginning to realize these costs -- in many cases, only when it's too late:

1. Time
The question of whether social media is a productive or distracting force in our lives is fodder for another article. The fact remains that we've all agreed to invest our time in this activity. According to Nielsen and NM Incite's The Social Media Report 2012, consumers continue to spend more time on social networks than on any other type of Internet site. Twenty percent of the total time we spend online is on personal computers and 30 percent via mobile devices. And it's increasing. As of July 2012, the total time spent accessing and engaging in social media sites has increased 37 percent in the U.S., representing 121 billion minutes (up from 88 billion minutes the year before).

2. Emotion
Social media is often criticized for creating a culture of "over-sharing." Real-time connectivity via mobile devices and one-click "share to other network" options in mobile apps means we have the option to share the minutiae of our lives: what we we're thinking, eating, watching, reading or doing. Opening ourselves up in this manner is an emotional investment. We put a bit of ourselves into every post and with each share we're creating a digital version of ourselves, which isn't necessarily a constructive outlet. For example, a study by the University of Waterloo as reported in Psychological Science demonstrated that Facebook engagement can increase the likelihood of depression in some people. They found that those with low self-esteem tend to express a lot of negative emotion and little positive emotion. Not surprisingly, the reactions received from others weren't good; people with low self-esteem were liked less. Social media can take an emotional toll on all of us.

3. Privacy
Privacy is the price that I'm most surprised we're willing to pay for access to social networking. As suggested in the previous point, every social media activity creates a digital version of you, but not just for you. Every time you register or log in, even for something as simple as performing a Google search, you're establishing a personal profile about yourself within the data repositories of social networks like Facebook and Google+. Social networks track when and how often you perform certain tasks, what you're engaged in and with whom. The marketing spin they offer is that this allows them to provide you a better user experience, yet we all know it's simply to learn more about you. Your data is currency. The more personal the information they can acquire the more they can charge advertisers for access to you.

This is the addiction and cost of social media. Time, emotion and privacy are offered up too willingly for a not-so-quick hit. Are you addicted? How much will you continue to pay? Is it worth it?

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