A Curious Case of Social Media Addiction

I have been dabbling with social media and networking for over two years now. One of the things that has struck me are the similarities of between general social media and networking interaction and my knowledge of the gambling industry. What is especially curious is the way in which my role as a ‘blog poster’ casts me in the role of ‘player’ rather than ‘designer-developer’. The BBC news site carried an article on the 19th March 2010 titled Technology addicts offered treatment. This is a news theme that is covered from time to time and it got thinking about my own behaviour and the ways in which people engage (or not in social media/ networking activities)

Take this post for example. Its been a few weeks (again) since I posted. Lurking at the back of my mind has been a nagging concern about that. The little voice in my head has been saying “you really should write another post…go on…get on with it.” When the time or the headspace hasn’t been available to do this I notice I’ve become irrititable too “not the damn dog walking again…do I really have to fix the venetian blind?….can’t it wait!?. Minor signs of addiction onset? Quite possibily.

So how can social media/ networking addiction be explained? Well, my layman’s knowledge of addictive behaviours gleaned over a couple of decades in the gaming industry might offer some insights. If you want a more informed and professional view you should check out the UK’s leading expert in this area Professor Mark Griffiths

Lets take the The Illusion of Control. Psychologist Ellen Langer described this phenomenon wayback in the 1970s. It relates to the mistaken beliefs that people hold about how they can control the outcome of future events. It is closely related to what is called Gamblers Arrogance, which is where very regular gamblers believe they ‘can stop playing whenever they choose, they just choose to keep playing’. In my case its probably chasing the illusion of social influence! Writing a post gives a strong sense of ‘being in control’. From a formal academic perspective there are no peer review processes to go through (although social media peers will review what is written), and crucially there is no need to approach a publisher. I’m in control. I create the content, I press the ‘publish’ button. I can post or not post whenever I choose. Can’t I?

The curious thing about setting up a blog is that you begin to believe you have readership to serve. No posts and you’re letting your ‘public’ down. No posts and Google won’t regard your blog as fresh and you’ll be banished to the oblivion of search page 57. No posts and they won’t be cross posted to Twitter, Facebook, Friend Feed, Delicious, Reddit, Digg and all the other social networking sites you have diligently set up accounts for. Set up because without them you simply won’t be heard. You’ll have no reach. You’ll be a…nobody!

The most compulsive thing about social media/networking are the stats. Instant feedback. The quick hit (sic). The gambling industry runs on statistics. In particular ‘cash box’ take. The amount of money a game nets each hour/day/week. It is a powerful independent arbiter of just how appealling the game content is. For the social media/networking addict stats work in the same way. Post content, wall content, forum content is all driven by popularity metrics. Hits, clicks, followers. They all indicate how you are doing, how you are percieved. They drive compulsion. I recently helped a friend create a Squidoo article. The previous articles were getting between 5 and 20 readers a week. Writing one about Stefani Germanotta Before The Fame (That’s Lady Gaga to you and me folks) and my friend gets a whopping 250 readers a week. Now that is a buzz. That’s where the endorphins kick in and you want more of it, and the only way to get it is to write another post. Your’e in control. The outcome is down to you. You decide what’s written, where the links go, who they go to. Every editorial decision is yours. If it flies its down to you. If it flops its you again. It beats being an armchair football team manager hands down!

And so some posts are ignored, some are hugely popular, some nearly make it with a few readers but not enough to say its a top post. Now this is where another dimension of compulsion kicks in. Nearly writing a very popular post entices you to write ‘just one more’. Just like the gambler the next post is going to be ‘the big winner’. You have to best the last post, you study your previous form (from the stats) you talk to other professionals to get tips. You keep going and you are more likely to keep going if you had a popular post when you first started. This proves you can do it, you just have to re-create the magic.

So if social media/networking is as compulsive as this how come some people don’t engage? If anyone has set up a Ning community site they may have found that the world is not made up of technological obsessives. Not everyone is a technological determinist who believes that the next new widget will transform your life. I guess the answer lies in the fact that we are really dealing with a social not a technological phenomenon. Or is that too either/ or?

People aren’t addicted to ‘the technology’ they are addicted to what the technology ‘does’. If the technology doesn’t satisfy some personal or social need, or solve some personal or social problem then there is no way they can be ‘hooked’. Compulsive social connectors have the roots of their problem in issues of need for control and this includes a thirst for knowledge and gossip, need for independence and sense of self. People who get these needs satisfied in other ways in other ways probably don’t need to Blog, use Facebook, Twitter, or Ning. That doesn’t mean that as human beings they are not socially addicted!

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2 Responses to “A Curious Case of Social Media Addiction”

  1. Andy T Says:


    Gamblers vs. Bloggers – Different demographics.

    Gambling = Solo activity. Seeking affirmation from fate? Lady Luck.
    Blogging = Social activity. Seeking affirmation from peers? Lady GaGa.

    My 2 cents.


  2. Paul Johnston Says:

    That’s true Andy. They’re definitely not the same thing at all. Hopefully your comment is affirmation from a peer 🙂 if yes, then I’m sure Stefani Germanotta would be proud of me!


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