In our digital era of smartphones and social media, it seems nearly everyone suffers from communication overload. Less than 15 years ago, most netizens had just one or two email accounts, texting was tedious and costly, and mobile phones were primarily used to make, well, phone calls.
Today, it’s common for people to manage numerous social media accounts and email addresses. One recent estimate claimed the average internet user has seven social media accounts — excluding email. Chunky mobile phones have been replaced by pocket touchscreen computers that constantly jingle and buzz notifications, pulling their owners away from face-to-face encounters with other human beings into a constantly churning social networking vortex.
Experts who look into such things say that while social networking has its benefits — professionally, personally, politically — it’s also dumbing down the ways people communicate with each other. Having so many channels of communication has overwhelmed our ability to thoughtfully interact online, encouraging cheap and easy forms of communication.
Instead of taking the time to formulate a thoughtful reply to an online friend’s social media post, social media users tend to gravitate to using an emoji or firing off a brief comment meant to convey little more than acknowledgment.
“When you look at social media apps, particularly Facebook, the most common action is to ‘like’ something; it’s not to comment, it’s not to post, it’s to ‘like,’” Larry Rosen, co-author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” told Salon. “The reason for that is because it takes minimal cognitive effort.”
Indeed, Facebook’s “like” icon has been such a popular way to communicate that last year the world’s largest social network expanded its thumbs-up icon into a suite of five “reactions” icons that represent anger, sadness, surprise, laughter and love, giving users the same depth of communication that could be taught to a chimpanzee.
These icons may be overly simplistic and ambiguous, but studies have shown that receiving even these tiny and insignificant gratifications has a neurological effect on social media users that is similar to what we feel when eating delicious food, after an intense workout, or during sex. (Anyone who has seen one of their Facebook posts amass dozens of “reactions” and comments has experienced that little boost to self-esteem.)
Facebook’s long-established resistance to adding a “dislike” button suggests it is trying to emotionally engineer its online community toward uplifting and positive interactions. This would make sense, since a happy and content (and troll-free) Facebook community is a more appealing consumer target for the company’s advertisers. Income from advertising was Facebook’s main source for its $27.64 billion in revenue and $10.22 billion in profit last year.