Is Social Networking Sucking Your Life Away?

An honest cost-benefit analysis can help you decide.

I participate in Twitter. I also participate on LinkedIn and RedBubble. And I have accounts on My Space, Facebook, Technorati, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, Pownce, Flicker and a number of others I can’t remember. (I occasionally sign up for a “new” account, only to find that I already have one. Oops!)

Note here that I make a distinction between participate in and have accounts on. The social networking sites I participate in are the ones I use regularly. The ones I have accounts on are ones I’ve tried but don’t actively use. And then there are the ones I’ve tried and deleted accounts from. (My recent experience with Spock comes to mind.) I’ve actually deleted more social networking accounts than I actively participate in.

But I know many, many people who actively participate in multiple social networking sites. And I have just two questions for these people:

  • How?
  • Why?

How Do they Do It?

I don’t know about you, but in my universe, a day has 24 hours. Of those 24, I throw away 6 to 8 by sleeping. I spend another 4 to 6 doing “life maintenance” tasks like eating, bathing, socializing with my household’s members (husband, parrot, dog, and horses) and friends, and keeping my house clean. Then figure another 4 to 12 hours doing the work that pays the bills.

What’s left? Not much.

So how are people finding the time to participate in all these social networks?

My participation in Twitter is well-integrated into my lifestyle. Twitterific is open on my computers’ desktops. (And no, that’s not a typo. It’s open on all of my computers’ desktops.) Throughout the day, I receive tweets from the 30 or so Twitter members I follow and send my own tweets out into the ether. Occasionally, a conversation will start up between me and another member, but it usually consists of no more than two or three tweets on either side. And it isn’t as if the conversation is live. Sometimes a fellow twitterer will ask me a question and I won’t see it for an hour or two, when I’ll finally answer it. It’s not like I sit there watching Twitterific. I don’t. And when I’m away from my desk or computer, I’ll occasionally tweet from the field using the SMS capabilities of my Treo. I do this most often when I’m on the road, but I occasionally do it when I’m in the middle of something and have a few spare minutes. I hate doing nothing and these tweets often give me something to do.

My participation in LinkedIn is less active. I basically check in once a week or so, just to see if any of my contacts have added contacts that I know. If so, I attempt to add them. Once in a while, I’ll update my profile or write up a recommendation for one of my contacts. Or ask for a recommendation.

RedBubble sees me even less frequently. Although I started out visiting every morning for one to two hours, I soon realized that I was wasting my time there. RedBubble, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a social networking site for artists, photographers, and (supposedly) writers. Members post their work. Artwork can often be purchased. But I soon learned that the kind of artistic people who actively participate in online social networking do so only so they get positive feedback on the work they’ve posted. There’s not much “social” about it. So I stopped wasting my time and now use RedBubble solely to get extremely high quality cards and prints of my own photographs. (Seriously, RedBubble is the best. I challenge anyone to find a better source for printing photography in a variety of formats.)

Note that I used the phrase “stopped wasting my time.” I stopped wasting my time with most of the other social networking sites, too. I simply wasn’t getting enough benefit from these sites to make it worth the time I was spending there.

Yet so many people make the time. Where do they get it from? Do they simply neglect the other parts of their lives? Which ones? Sleeping? Life maintenance? Real socializing with friends and family members?

How do they do it?

Why Do They Do It?

But perhaps the real question is why they do it. What benefit do people get from online social networking?

As you may have guessed, I haven’t seen much benefit to the sites I don’t actively participate in. I have my own Web site (you’re on it, unless you’re reading this in a feed reader or yet another splog has stolen my content), so I have my own forum for sharing thoughts, photos, etc. That means I don’t need MySpace or FaceBook. I simply don’t have time to surf the Web for interesting content, so I don’t need Technorati, Del.icio.us, or StumbleUpon. My photos are on my site or on RedBubble, where they can be purchased as high-quality products, so I don’t need Flicker. Pownce is simply a prettier version of Twitter with a few extra bells and whistles, but I like Twitter and since I use the Twitterific interface for following tweets, I don’t care how unattractive Twitter’s interface is.

As for the social networking sites I do participate in, I see definite benefits to my participation and those benefits outweigh the cost in my [very valuable, at least to me] time.

Take, for example, Twitter. Being a writer is a lonely occupation, since it doesn’t involve working directly with people throughout the writing process. In fact, it’s better when there isn’t anyone around. So imagine me at my desk working 12-hour days to finish a book on time. I have some music on and my parrot is chattering away in the next room. I’m creating screenshots and laying out pages, and editing the last edition’s text so it applies to this version of the software. I need a break, I feel like being part of the world, at least for a few minutes. So I switch to the Twitterific window and see what my Twitter friends have been up to. Suddenly, I’m not alone. I’m part of an active, current world. I see news tweets from CNN when something major has occurred (although I really don’t give shit about O.J. and can’t understand why CNN is determined to keep it in the news). I see tweets about lunch and meetings and work activities and family interaction. I’m alone in my office, yet I’m part of a bigger picture and that picture is live.

I’ve also made friends on Twitter. Not people I’ve met in person — at least not yet. But people I can turn to if I have a question or even chat with. Yesterday, I called Francine Hardaway, one of my Twitter friends, on the phone to get her impressions on social networking. She’s extremely involved in online social networking — she tweets about it all the time — and I thought she might reveal something about it that I could be missing. What I discovered is that she uses Twitter for pretty much the same reason I do. And she’s involved with many of the other social networking sites to stay in tune with what younger, technology-saavy people are doing and thinking. This helps her with her work as an entrepreneurial consultant.

What’s neat about Twitter is that it attracts people from all over the world. I think I have more Twitter friends in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand than in the U.S. It’s interesting to observe how they come and go throughout the day. Andy, who is in the U.K., is just finishing up his work day as I start mine. Miraz, in New Zealand, is getting to work as I break for lunch. Twitter is a big picture of the world and I find it fascinating and well worth the time I put into it.

I wish I could say the same about LinkedIn. Although the concept is a good idea, its feature set is somewhat limited by the site developers’ desire to monetize it. So the really useful features are reserved for paying members. And frankly, I don’t think they’re worth paying for. What’s left is a true networking site where you have to already have a relationship or link to a member before you can be directly linked. That keeps spammers and “friend collectors” (as you might find on Twitter, FaceBook, etc.) in check.

While you think that a professional networking site like this — after all, it’s based on working relationships — might result in work leads and jobs, it doesn’t. Not for me, not for any of my LinkedIn connections. Yet people spend hours and hours on LinkedIn, answering questions posted by other members, searching for jobs, requesting recommendations, fine-tuning their connection lists. For what? I don’t know. Although I haven’t entirely written it off, it certainly isn’t worth more time than I already put into it: perhaps 2 to 4 hours a month.

N630ML at Norquist'sRedBubble, as I already mentioned, has just one benefit for me: the ability to get very high quality prints of my own photos. I’ve used it recently to create a package of photo cards to give as a gift to passengers on Flying M Air‘s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. The quality is something I can be proud to hand out as a gift. In fact, I recently had cards made as a gift for a friend who allowed me to land my helicopter in her yard so photographer Jon Davison could get photos of the helicopter and a really neat looking house. So my time spent on RedBubble these days is solely to upload photos and place orders.

I should mention here that I also use Del.icio.us. The emphasis is on the word use. I have a Del.icio.us bookmark in my browser that creates a Del.icio.us bookmark for pages I like. I never view the resulting list. Instead, Del.icio.us automatically generates a page full of my new links each day and posts them to my site.

But what about the other online social networking sites out there? Why are people using them? What benefit are they receiving? Is it worth the time they’re putting into it?

Don’t Let It Suck Your Life Away

I’ve been saying the same thing for years now, but I need to keep saying it.

Computers are a great tool and the Internet gives us easy and often exciting new ways to interact with other people. But there’s far more to life than what you see on a computer screen. The hours you spend in front of a computer are the hours you’re not participating in real life, building the relationships and memories and skills you’ll cherish for a lifetime.

So here’s what I’d like you (yes, you) to do. The next time you sit down for a session on Facebook or Flicker or [fill-in-the-blank], note the time you got started. Then, when you’re finished, note the time you stopped. Then think about that time and how you might have spent it better with your spouse or kids or best friend in the park or at a ball game or sitting around the kitchen table in conversation. Or doing something else that you enjoy or that can make you or your relationship with other people better. Then think about all the hours you spent at that social networking activity and imagine all those hours spent doing something better.

Don’t you think that might make your life better?

People often ask me how I do so much. My stock answer is that I don’t watch television. But the other answer is that I try not to waste time online.

And with that said, it’s time to get to work for the day.

What Do You Think?

I know you participate in online social networking. Why not answer my two questions — how and why? — in the Comments for this post? Perhaps you’ll be the one to explain what I’m missing. Use the Comments link or form for this post to get started.

7 thoughts on “Is Social Networking Sucking Your Life Away?

  1. That’s about the most eloquent summary of why the ubiquitousness of social networking sometimes puts me off. I barely have time for friends in real life, so I end up making a really lousy virtual friend in most social networks. Twitter, on the other hand, is low-commitment; I can update when I have a few seconds of otherwise dead time. And as you’ve observed, it stands in for the water-cooler that people in brick-and-mortar offices enjoy, without the drawback of people *needing* me to participate at any given moment.

  2. Yes…water cooler. That’s it exactly.

    And thanks for the complement. I don’t think anyone’s every applied to word “eloquent” to anything I’ve written before. Aw, shucks! You’re making me blush!

  3. I think you’ve not missed anything. I just came across your site, probably around two hours ago. It’s now after 3am, in the UK. I read your post about wasting time as that’s exactly what I know I do but I manage to do this without participating in any social networking sites (being registered but not doing anything else on LinkedIn doesn’t count). I also don’t have a television. I waste time ‘looking up stuff on the Internet’ and then reading things I find there, and I spend far longer on this than is reasonable. It’s perhaps the equivalent of eating chocolate when you know you should eat cabbage, it’s an indulgence. I work very long hours doing something moderately well that’s not particularly satisfying but is fairly pressurised so having the luxury to mess about on the Internet to almost no practical purpose is a sort of reward. Perhaps the other activities are similar, a way for people to be deliberately wasteful when normally they have to be responsible. On the other hand, I like what I’ve read on your site so I don’t really feel whatever time I’ve spent here has truly been wasted; do please carry on writing stuff that ruins my Sunday by eating into my Saturday night sleeping time.

  4. I also spend some time (although I try not to spend a lot) surfing the web. Once in a while, I’ll find some blog posts or other Web content I really enjoy.

    My husband watches TV to “unwind” at the end of a long workday. I see no reason why others shouldn’t use the Internet for the same purpose.

    I just worry about people who make their lives revolve around virtual friendships on online communities. People who’d rather spend a nice day off in front of a computer than doing something outdoors with family or friends.

    Kind of like me, today.

    Thanks for reminding me. Tomorrow will be a no-computer day.

  5. I actually found your site by Googling “social networking sites are sucking my life away,” so you can guess where I’m at with this issue. I know this post is a couple of years old, but just wanted to thank you for the good read. I fell into online marketing a couple of years ago and simply hate the fact my life is spent in front of a computer for hours on end, interacting with people via cyber space. Technology is both a blessing and a curse.

  6. I turned off my Facebook account about 4 weeks ago. I had a moment where I hated everything and just didn’t want interaction with people who claimed to be my “friends”. Less than a day later my best real life friend contacted me asking what happened to my account. A few other friends have inquired about where I went.
    I didn’t spend a lot of time on Facebook but I don’t miss it. Mostly for the reasons you list, the “value” recieved from the time spent there is simply not worth the investment.
    I am starting back to school to change careers (tired of my current profession) and figure school and real life will consume most of my time.
    I may have to give this Twitter thing you speak of a go…

    • Unfortunately, I HAVE to be on Facebook for business reasons. But I do try to minimize the time I spend there. It’s the least I can do in an effort to stay productive.

      I think you’ll like Twitter. Far less of an investment in time, easy to pick up and put down, nice to meet new people online without making them “friends.” I still prefer Twitter over Facebook for interaction with people online.

      Good luck to you!

What do you think?