Is Facebook the New Debbie Downer?

Debbie DownerThe true-to-life nature of SNL’s sketch on Debbie Downer now has backing from the Facebook Team. According to a Facebook research study, it turns out our moods are directly affected by what our friends share on social media.

I was sent a Mashable article on the ethical implications of this study and traced it back to the origin to uncover the conclusions of this peer-reviewed research.

Along with Cornell and UCSF, Facebook researchers used their news feed algorithm to edit the posted content on almost 700,000 user profiles. They skewed the feed either positively or negatively and then analyzed the resulting posts. The hypothesis was that the ingested content would affect the readers’ emotional states and contribute to an increased emotional response in their own posts. But the question was whether it would be correlative or inversely correlative. In other words, would reading positive content lead to writing more positive content or to writing more negative content? And vice versa.

The results? In short, they found that those whose feed was skewed positively ended up posting more positive content themselves and, conversely, those whose skewed negatively posted more negative content.

For some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer. However, in psychology theory it doesn’t always pan out this way. Some research supports the opposite results that positive content skews negatively as a bias effect (meaning we’re socially influenced and typically react against that influence by assuming the opposite emotional response).

However we view the ethical implications of this research, it supports an important counseling idea: co-rumination. This is the belief that our moods are affected by the moods of those around us. This is so pervasive that, cognitively, when we hear others share negative beliefs about themselves, negative information, or critical ideas, over and over in a cognitive loop (rumination), we’re more likely to internalize those beliefs and feelings ourselves and start our own pessimistic loop.

Debbie Downer is a great example of this. Maybe you’re having a good day, but then run into Debbie who shares bad news, or you read something depressing on the internet. How do you feel afterwards? How does that content affect you? Now, imagine that Debbie doesn’t just share one piece of bad news, but fifteen horrible tragedies; how do you feel then?

In a digital world, we’re more vulnerable to absorbing large quantities of information in a shorter period of time than we were in bygone, analogue eras. Much of what we absorb has an emotional bias, whether we’re aware of it or not. This means that what we’re ingesting from our news feed can be metabolized differently depending on the emotions underneath that content. And anybody who knows dieting knows that metabolic rates can either make or break weight loss. In the same way, our ability to metabolize emotional content will affect the way we feel, think, and react—making or breaking our day.

This means intentional decisions about who and what we learn from are important to our emotional well-being. It also supports something else. Absorbing information well means we need to learn to stand on our own two feet. (More on that later.)

Have you considered how much you’re impacted by what you see and read on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.? It would be easy for any of us to believe we’re above such impressionable responses, but as social creatures we were made to respond to the emotions of fellow humans, so whether we like it or not mirroring their responses is instinctual and catalytic.

So if this post made you angry, or sad, you can just call me Debbie Downer, blame your mood on my irritating ruminations, and go back to scanning memes and witty aphorisms. Or, you can start viewing social media just a little bit differently.

For my part, I’m curious about Mark Zuckerberg’s emotional response when he sees articles like this hit his own news feed…

Socially Overwhelmed: The Creation or Consumption of Digital Culture

I had hoped to post the podcast of ”Socially Overwhelmed” the radio program from July, along with some notes earlier this month.  However, due to technical difficulties, I’ll be unable to share the podcast.   Luckily, I have the photo to prove it happened!   Below is my attempt to outline the important details of the conversation.  Thanks to all of you who were interested in listening.  I’m sorry I couldn’t provide the audio.

The radio show aired on July 6th on WomanTalk Live and was a follow up to the program from a few months ago regarding the dark side of social media (see post for April 19th).  Here are some Q & A-style thoughts:

Q. What tension do you see related to social media and how people are trying to keep up?

It’s very difficult to cut through the noise.  We’re inundated with information and sometimes poorly equipped to differentiate music from static.  The way social media is structured draws us in to a culture of digital consumption.  It can become like an addiction, for some.  It’s even called a news feed, highlighting the cultural appetite, with app designs that are moving towards a model that favors consumption over output.  There’s a tsunami of voices vying for our attention, and if everything is a high priority, nothing is a high priority.

Q. Amy, in our conversation leading up to the show, you mentioned a book called “The Failure of Nerve”.  Share how this book reflects managing the overwhelming nature of social media.

“The Failure of Nerve” is a very insightful book on leadership written by family therapist, Edwin Friedman.  There’s a chapter in the book that discusses “data junkyards”.  Friedman describes these junkyards as the places where we get stuck frenetically absorbing information to offset a multitude of anxieties, resulting in the opposite of the intended outcome.  We often graft onto the motto that the more we know the better off we’ll be.  Friedman challenges this by posturing that when we’re stuck in these junkyards, we’re more likely to get flooded with information that has little value or ability to answer the fundamental questions.  The unfiltered consumption of information leads to more anxiety and less wisdom.  When we absorb ideas without an intentional approach, we end up in the limiting pursuit of certainty rather than curiosity.

Q. I’ve recently heard the term “FOMO” (fear of missing out) regarding social media.  How do we manage the overwhelming nature of social media and FOMO?

This fear extends far beyond social media to all areas of life.  The idea that we might be missing out on something can inspire the emergence of an anxiety-driven fear of isolation.  It’s okay to miss out.  Missing out on one facet of experience may mean that we’re open and receptive to another area of our lives.  What if in missing out on digital consumption, you become better attuned to your analog world?  One way to cut through the noise is by considering the culture of digital media that you’re creating.  Being intentional and value-driven about your consumption will help you decide what’s actually important to experience.  In so doing, the fear of missing out is diminished or rendered unimportant.    If you’re not shaping the culture, it will shape you.

Q. What are a few tips you have for the audience for managing the overwhelming nature of social media?

  1. Be Intentional:  Change your perspective from being a passive consumer to an active participant.  It may require a paradigm shift, but you are what you follow.  Make intentional decisions about how many times a day you’ll tune in to social media; pick 5 or so top sources that you want to learn from, and focus on those; choose which social media outlets  attempt to answer your fundamental questions (or meta-questions).
  2. Be Value-Driven: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life.” (Mumford and Sons)  Decide, ahead of time, what you want your digital culture to look like and craft it accordingly.  Ask questions like: “What am I intending to learn?” “What sources will enhance my desired growth?” and “Who aligns with my espoused ideals?”
  3. Get Unplugged: Taking time to unplug clears the cobwebs and helps shape perspective.  The social media gurus all encourage digital sabbaticals.  Take at least a couple hours, weekly, to unplug and connect with your analog world.  Use that time to discover how you see life in 2D rather than 3D when you’re anxiously plugged in.  Are there ways your digital culture limits your creativity and curiosity?

Social media, like anything else, requires a mindful approach if it’s to be useful and enriching.  It has become an entrenched part of daily living for so many of us, but it has also seductively burrowed into our daily routines.  There’s a missing link of evaluative thought.  If we’re more intentional about what toothpaste we buy than who we choose for digital mentors, there’s a systemic problem.  I speak to myself as readily as anyone else.  The quest for mindful living begins with what consumes us.  How do you want to invest your love and life?  If it’s not intentionally invested, your allegiance will be chosen for you.

The Dark Side of Social Media

Last Saturday I had the privilege of being a guest on Woman Talk Live, a radio program on WCBM talk radio 680.  The topic was the lonely side of social media.  It was a great opportunity to reflect on how women experience community and, conversely, isolation through social media.

The applications expand to men and women, as the program evaluated the evolution of social media and the emotional effects that arise for digital natives.  Here are a few thoughts that came out of that conversation.  To hear the program, click here:

Social media often encourages more isolation than community as people craft carefully edited versions of themselves to post on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  Others’ crafted images become the backdrop for our failures, as we end up comparing our every day experiences against the successes of our peers.  This breeds insecurity.  When people do post unedited versions of themselves, it often leads to judgement or scrutiny.  These feelings of judgement, insecurity, and failure create barriers to authentic connection with others.

Rather than responding with this kind of insecurity or judgement,  we would do well to consider our own authentic image-building.  What does it look like for me to be authentic in appropriate ways in these different communities?  Social media is a wonderful context for identity development.  It quickly becomes a litmus test for how comfortable we are with ourselves and with the way others perceive us.  Consider what it would look like to put a genuine, balanced representation of yourself on Facebook.  What would feel risky about that?  How would you navigate those risks in order to be consistent?

Along with authenticity, in order to create a social media community we want to learn to encourage one another rather than competing.  How often do we respond to valuable quotes, important updates, or new pictures?  Some people do it masterfully and are really encouraging.  I know that I’m not nearly as vocal as I should be when I see something that I appreciate or enjoy.

As we begin to be intentional about our social media usage, we can be inspired by the power of digital community.  Social media offers connections that are profound and our influence can extend far beyond what we may ever know.  It’s exciting to consider the possibilities inherent in this type of community, and when it’s used well, it can be a powerful and effective agent of change.

To hear the radio program, click here: