Ethics of digital engagement: How far is too far in the quest for attention?

If you’re a regular reader, then you know I’m a big fan of TED Talks. A recent episode titled “Manipulation” got me thinking about the community manager’s role in the debate over social media and mental disorders. I won’t pretend to have any of the answers here—even the National Institutes of Health agree that there’s no agreement on the good or bad effects of social media on our brains and behavior. Instead, I hope this can be some small addition to the broader dialogue around the issue of changing technology and what it can do to humans.

First, it’s important to understand why some people think that social media is contributing to mental health issues. There are several studies that have shown that people sometimes behave in strange, compulsive ways on the internet. While there are many disagreements about the severity and depth of internet-related disorders, there is broad agreement that they exist and that they manifest in a variety of ways. And when one steps back and thinks logically about the situation, it’s clear that complexities like one’s mental state would extend to our digital selves. As a result, if we see things like anxiety and depression and addiction in our day-to-day lives, then it stands to reason that we would see them in our digital lives as well.

Instead, what has changed is the environment of addiction and compulsion. We now have a digital playground in which to lose ourselves, and some of us will do just that. It’s important to remember that the software and services that we use on a daily basis are increasingly designed to attract and keep our attention. But while Facebook in small doses can keep us in touch with family and friends, in large doses it can be detrimental to our health. And while it’s not exactly a fine line that separates the Facebook addict from the Facebook user, the platform does its best to push users across that line by feeding our shortcomings, like the ever dreaded FOMO. It unabashedly uses these psychological tactics to push its users toward addiction, much like tobacco companies use flavorings and stylish cartons to push casual users toward full-fledged addiction.

What Facebook and other social media tools have begun to do is create mechanisms to engage their users for the sake of engagement. No longer are social media companies about connecting us with our social groups. Now their primary purpose is to keep our eyes glued to our screens in an effort to keep advertisers happy and to keep their stockholders rich. Gone are the days when we were excited to see a Facebook or Twitter notification from a friend–now we simply endure seemingly endless social advertising campaigns as our former loved ones become zombified brand ambassadors and volunteer advertisers. And for whose sake?

No matter our intentions, one thing every community manager should avoid is drawing attention for the sake of being seen. While you may hold true to the adage that any publicity is good publicity, in a world of increasing specificity and personalization, purpose is your best currency. Without purpose, your social network is a vestigial nubbin on the face of greater change. Without purpose your “engagement” will ultimately mean little. So think about the big picture, and, at the risk of sounding cliche, think about the change that you want your community to make in the world. Once you’ve figured out where you want to go, you’ll spend less time spinning wheels for your members and more time taking them places.

Additional Resources

Signs you may have a social media addictionPsychology Today
Social media really is affecting your moodTime
Getting help with mental illnessMentalHealth.gov

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