Caroline Baum of Bloomberg View thinks so, here’s a brief excerpt from her article (December 27, 2012):
The difficulty of capturing the Twitter effect in the
aggregate data notwithstanding, the productivity-sapping side of
social networking doesn’t stop there. A recent study by Keith
Wilcox, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School,
found that Facebook was making people fat. Yes, fat. It seems
that social networking improves self-esteem and, in so doing,
reduces control over our choice of snacks.
I wouldn’t stop there. I would say that Twitter, Facebook, iPhones and iPads and most certainly blogs like this one are not at all intended to enhance productivity, but are instead time-wasting devices. Social media, which is to say, practically everything developed for the internet in the last decade or so, are not meant to enhance productivity but are meant to provide entertainment.
In a world where, due to technological progress, only about 3% of the population needs employment in the acquisition of food, that most essential of existential challenges, the 97% not so employed need something to do, and particularly so, now that the agricultural surpluses of the centuries have been intelligently leveraged such that every imaginable need and practically all reasonable wants are fulfilled for the vast bulk of the population. The bread having been secured, the only extant growth industry left is circuses, which is what social media are all about.
Allow me an anecdote to aid in making my point. My wife has a cousin who is an assistant football coach at a major football-playing university. He’s in his late thirties, and is a genuinely nice, but otherwise unremarkable, young man. He makes about a quarter million dollars per year, and was recently promoted to a job that will pay him roughly six hundred thousand per year. What business is he in? Is it in something necessary, upon which society depends, like food or fuel production, or medical care? No, he’s in the entertainment business. Major college and pro football are aspects, like social media, of the entertainment industry–of the industry devoted to helping people pleasantly waste their leisure hours.
It is because of productivity enhancements resulting from industrialization and, more lately, information and communications technologies, that there is now so much time to waste until a great premium is afforded to those who help people waste it pleasantly. With football, the practically religious (or at least nationalistic) fervor with which teams are supported and followed (devoting a great portion of leisure time and disposable income to the pursuit) means that fans often find a great deal more through supporting a team than just a viscerally thrilling waste of time. They often find meaning and purpose for their lives. Considered thusly, there is no price too high to pay to support the team. Multiply the attitude several times over and you have an assistant coach on a college football team making several times more than the highest paid professors the school employs. Does it represent an inverted order of priorities? Of course it does, if the long-term health of society is considered. But it is a perfectly rational response to a world in which survival is so steadfastly assured that day-to-day living has become an ennui-suffused banality.
Success always carries with it the seeds of failure. Twitter and Facebook, two mechanisms for connecting to others with no real purpose except that of making the connection, are, as Ms. Baum asserts, making us fat and unproductive. But they are only symptoms of a much greater phenomenon. Once we’ve got our bread, we need our circuses, and we’ll pay dearly to anyone who can provide us a reasonably entertaining one.