Is Social Media a Waste of Time, or What Are You Doing With Your Cognitive Surplus?

by Kat French |

photo courtesy Craig Jewel @sxc.huWhen I try to explain to most folks what I do for a living, no matter how well I try to explain myself, I usually get the same response, which generally boils down to some variation of “So, you get paid to goof off on the internet, basically?”

It’s a fair statement, I suppose. Up till now, that’s how most businesses characterized social media participation: “goofing off on the internet.” It may still be how most businesses characterize social media activity.

I’m not going to argue that there isn’t a lot of less-than-productive activity going on in the social web. I have a working theory that LOLcats and Myspace are to 2008 what Solitaire and Minesweeper were to the 1990s, when most businesses had computer access, but not necessarily web access. However, I’m not 100% convinced that “non-productive activity” equates to “a loss of productivity,” and I’m sure as heck not going to concede that participating in social media is a waste of time.

I saw a really intriguing video of Clay Shirky giving a speech at the Web 2.0 Conference in April. If you’d like to see it yourself, the video is here, or if you prefer reading, the transcript is here. He starts out by repeating an assertion from a British historian that the most important technology at the start of the industrial revolution was gin.

The influx of population into urban centers, created a crisis that resulted in a nearly generation-long alcoholic stupor. Dickens was being a somewhat ironic when he had Ebenezer Scrooge casually talk about “decreasing the surplus population”—Scrooge intended it as an insult, insinuating that the poor were unnecessary baggage to society. But a surplus of any resource can be a good thing, if you make proper use of it. Extra people meant extra mouths to feed, but it also meant more hands to build and support the libraries and civic programs we associate with industrialized society.

image courtesy Jay Lopez @sxc.huShirky goes on to declare television the gin of the modern age, when people suddenly had a surplus of something they’d never had before: free time and attention. Just as those turn of the century folks had no idea what to do with all those surplus people, mid-century folks had no idea what to do with the cognitive (time and attention) surplus created by modern conveniences. So they tuned in and zoned out.

That brings us to today, and to social media participation, and the question of “goofing off on the internet.” Shirky made some quick calculations, and determined that the two hundred billion hours Americans spend watching television is enough “thought-hours” to recreate Wikipedia in its entirety 2,000 times a year. That’s a hell of a lot of spare time and attention, isn’t it? And many people are using that surplus in surprisingly productive and innovative ways.

Another thing to consider in all this is “how do you define productivity?” In my parents’ generation, “productivity” meant that you showed up to work on time and completed your assigned tasks with a minimum of time spent hanging around the watercooler gossiping about your coworkers (which is what preceded Solitaire, Freecell and Minesweeper, but I digress).

Today, we increasingly quantify productivity by the value you create for your organization. A big part of that potential value is innovation. A 2007 Gallup study indicates that the two criteria that most affect employee innovation are strength development and engagement. The social web has made it ridiculously simple for employees both to learn from the top minds in their industry (through thought-leadership blogs) and to connect with and bounce ideas off of their closer peers. Better ideas are being developed, shot down, revised and refined, and run up the flagpole again, in a shorter period of time, because of the social web.

Then there is the personal value of social media participation that is impossible to quantify. For many folks (me included), social media has been a place where we’ve wrestled with some pretty significant questions. For centuries, people have used journals as a place to “work things out on paper.” The blogging revolution has enabled people to do that same “working out on paper,” with the additional benefit of honest feedback from others.

In fact, researchers James Baker and Susan Moore at the Swinburne University of Technology have published two papers on the psychological benefits of blogging, with more studies in the works. According to their latest findings, blogging can enhance your sense of social well-being, both online and offline. After two months, participants who blogged regularly reported feeling they had better social support and friendship networks than those who didn’t blog.

So the next time someone responds with “So you basically goof off on the internet for a living?” I may just ask them what they’re planning on doing with their particular slice of those two billion thought-hours per year of cognitive surplus. And I’ll try to be gracious if their response consists of catching up on their TiVo queue.

About the Author

Kat French

Kat French is the Client Services and Content Manager at SME Digital. An exceptional writer, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in content strategy, copywriting, community management and social media marketing. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, CafePress and more.