Power on. Click the blue “e” with a Saturn-like ring. Type “f” into the box at the top of the screen. Press the down arrow key once. Hit enter. In mere seconds, you’ve just accessed a portal to connect with over 500 million people. And this access isn’t some exclusive ability — it’s public to anyone, anywhere. Moreover, any given person with access spends over 700 billion minutes per month using this “portal.” Hell, even your computer remembers the URL, so you don’t even have to type the whole thing. What is this omnipotent force of cyberspace? It’s the noun-turned-verb Facebook.
Since its launch in February 2004, Facebook has become a phenomenon indicative not only of technological innovation and global connections, but also of intrinsic human characteristics. The length and breadth of Facebook’s exponentially increasing influence have been detailed ad nauseum by social scientists, journalists, critics and even Facebook itself. Yet the question —why? — remains unanswered. For all the power that the top social networking site affords each of its registered members, what do people actually do with the site’s impressive capabilities?
Most college students limit themselves to updating their statuses, robotically scrolling through pictures of “friends” and posting or commenting on their friends’ “walls.” To be sure, this represents a form of connecting with peers in an instant and efficient way — yet the connections are rarely of any importance. After all, when we want or need an immediate connection with the people that matter the most to us, we will meet them face-to-face, or simply call or video chat with them. So, how does one account for the huge number of college students logging on every single day to devote endless hours to this seemingly unproductive use of time? And no, typing song lyrics as your status does not qualify as a useful activity.
One answer may be found in research about procrastination. A 2002 study of 374 undergraduates conducted by Fuschi M. Sirois and Timothy A Pychyl of the University of Carleton suggested that procrastinators have problems with “impulse control and general self-regulation.” This observation suggests that procrastinators are not so much inherently lazy as they are unable to resist the temptation to be distracted. Given Facebook’s 24/7 availability (e.g., applications on phones and mobile Web browsing via WiFi or service providers), one can easily see the logic in this reframing of procrastination.
Yet while the instinct to click might involve procrastination, the underlying motivation possibly stems from a deeper biological source. A study published in Nature Neuroscience in December 2010 looked at the relationship between neurophysiology and social network complexity. The researchers first determined the social network complexity of a diverse group of 58 healthy adults by asking the volunteers to list the networks they belonged to as well as their individual contacts. They found that a specific area of the brain was volumetrically larger in individuals with more complex social networks. This area, the amygdala, has long been linked to emotion, especially with regard to perception of emotion in oneself and others. Leader of the research team, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School said, “A larger amygdala probably enables humans to more effectively identify, learn about and recognize social and emotional cues in each other, allowing us to develop complex strategies to get along and get ahead in life.”
Is it possible that online social networking also contributes to this seemingly beneficial evolutionary development? True, our Facebook “friends” often are not real friends — sometimes they are people we have never even met before — yet, the number of Facebook friends one accumulates clearly impacts the diversity of information available for the person. Even though your eyes glaze over while reading through your newsfeed — an accumulation of friends’ online activity, for all you Facebook virgins — you’re still subconsciously processing vast amounts of information about social interactions between different people.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently criticized Amy Chua (author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”) for depriving her children of the intellectual demands inherent in many social activities, such as acting in a school play or attending a sleepover. While Chua dismisses these interactions as wasteful, Brooks recognizes their importance for mastering complex group dynamics that can only be learned in such settings. In this light, Facebook’s reputation as an enabler of procrastination may be undeserved. This doesn’t change the fact that end-of-term papers must still be written, but it may make you feel slightly less guilty now knowing that time on Facebook isn’t a complete waste. Facebook might just have a hidden emotional value.
Caitlin Gilbert is a sophomore in the College. She can be reached at email@example.com. THE CORTEX appears every other Tuesday.
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