Just over a quarter of all Internet activity conducted by people is on social networks, with most of that being on Facebook. Even outside social networks, a large amount of online activity is essentially social – the adding of comments on blogs, the sharing of content and the sending of messages to each other. Social dominates the Internet.
For business owners, social activity brings enormous benefits, of course. The use of Facebook allows you to communicate directly with consumers. LinkedIn helps you find new employees, suppliers, partners and so on. Twitter provides an excellent customer service tool. And that’s all before you even consider the benefits of precisely targeted advertising or the ability to promote your products and services to a wider audience. Without doubt, social networks have given businesses a massive boost.
However, there is always a negative side to things, no matter how positive we think they are. After all, one of the issues of social media activity is the time it takes up for businesses. If your company is going to take proper and full advantage of social networks it requires constant monitoring and changes to working practice, often the employment of additional staff. The benefits of social networks for business are sometimes outweighed by the management issues that arise once you start using such systems.
Management problems, though, can be overcome. With careful planning and training it is perfectly possible for companies to take advantage of social networks at the same time as removing the management issues such activity creates.
The real problem with social networks is a deep and profound psychological one, which researchers are only just beginning to uncover. Thinking.
It looks like social networks have the power to stop us thinking.
One well-known aspect of social psychology is the power of “group norms”. Social groups always tend to agree a “norm”. This provides stability for the group, increases cooperation and makes us all rub along together so much easier. It means we tend to agree more than we disagree.
There is also the phenomenon of “in-group out-group” psychology whereby people within a group protect it by adhering to their norms so that they can exclude people who are outside their group. This ensures the continuation of social groups and also makes sure that its members “stay in line”.
Social groups have tremendous power on us at the unconscious level.
But new research shows that such groups also have another unconscious power – they stop us thinking independently. In a fascinating study, researchers from the University of Oregon found that people in social groups given a problem to solve tend to agree on a solution, whereas people solving the problem independently tend to work out their own answers. In other words, when we are in social groups we tend to accept the overall thinking of the group. But faced with issues alone, we tend to work out new and interesting ideas.
This study is similar to research on “brainstorming” exercises. They have found that when a business group is in a meeting they produce fewer new ideas than when that team is asked to come up with ideas, but individually. It turns out that on our own we think much more deeply and analytically than when we are in a group of people.
For businesses this is a problem for the future. As more and more business is conducted through social networks we are becoming more and more social. That means when we need to come up with new business ideas we will rely more on the agreed thoughts of others in the network, rather than coming up with our own solutions. It suggests that as we progress in the years to come that businesses will become less able to solve things because there will be a reduced level of analytical thinking.
This, rather than the management issue of time wasting, could be the real problem we have to face with social networks.
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+