I have been reading a lot of theories recently which have been used to explain the phenomenon of widespread social media use, and the nature of that use (as you will probably be aware, the growth rate of social media adoption has been exponential in recent years).
One of these theories in particular caught my eye: social loafing.
Essentially, the act of social loafing occurs when an individual exerts less effort to achieve goals when working within a group context than they do when working alone. This can be a negative thing for virtual communities, and for online social networking generally, given that social media relies on content being created and shared by members of those communities. When you think about it, would Facebook be viable if nobody shared anything on their wall or posted any status updates? Of course, it is easy to be cynical about self-aggrandising behaviour, endless dinner photographs, or wistful ‘I can’t get to sleep/I missed my train again’ soliloquies. But really, they are the lifeblood of social networking sites.
The idea of social loafing also draws parallels with the concept of the “lurker”, a term most prominently associated with online discussion forums (or messageboards), and which refers to somebody who monitors content without ever actually making a personal contribution. Lurkers are attracted by the information which is available on the forum, but face an unknown barrier to actively becoming involved in the community. However, research does suggest that they are less likely to trust the benevolance, or the integrity of other users within the community.
So what does this all mean? Is it a good or a bad thing?
Well, it’s hard to say, but it certainly creates an interesting situation.
Before online networking became widespread, people would have been forced to access information derived from their informal social capital resources via face-to-face communication, or by telephone/mail. Now though, social networking sites give you the opportunity to to access your social capital instantly, directly, and across geographical boundaries.
And whereas previously buidling new social capital would have involved a concerted effort of socialising and attending events, now you can set up a Twitter account (anonymously even), and follow people from all over the world at the click of a button. You can connect with people who are experts in their field, expounding valuable pieces of knowledge pertaining to your direct informational need.
As for discussion boards, in many cases you don’t even have to bother setting up a profile to view topic threads. Looking for a job or employment information? There are forums available where the general public are continually providing assistance which could be relevant to your situation.
Of course, there are several caveats to all of this. For example, how do you know when to trust the information which is essentially coming from other human beings? This requires a good deal of critical thought on the part of the user. Also, whilst lurking/loafing on social media has the potential to lead you to some very interesting and beneficial resources which would have been otherwise difficult to access (without breaking into houses or tapping telephone lines), getting information tailored directly to your circumstance is likely to require you involvement on some level, by way of asking questions.
In summation, social media tools provide an ideal platform for social loafing behaviour, if the user knows where to look, and who to follow. Unfortunately though, such behaviour does little to add to the community, or to group cohesion.