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Is Social Media Really Making You Stupid?

Social Sonar - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ten years into using big social media platforms like Facebook, is it fair to step back and ask if all this online chatter and social networking we’re participating in is making us stupid? That’s the question posed by the Journal of the Royal Society Interface in a new study that looks at social connectivity online and how we analyze the content we share through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

The main thesis is this: On the surface, it looks like we’re all experts on a bigger variety of subjects than ever before. Our publishing personas seem to reflect an unprecedented depth and breadth of knowledge based on the content we share. But in reality, the content we share is quickly shared without great foresight or analysis.

It’s that lack of analysis and propensity to share in a more instinctive way that leads to misinformation spreading like wildfire. People are willing to look at a headline and a picture, reshare it and broadcast it to their network, and let it run its course without taking a moment to properly vet its veracity.

According to the study, part of the reason why it’s easy for misinformation to spread online has to do with the human propensity to copy. This can be a boon and a bane for people relying on their community to reshare the content they publish. On one hand, the instinct to copy means things get shared more quickly and more often. On the other hand, it means that things can get passed around without too much consideration.

So have we become guilty of trading headlines without delving more deeply into the story? Are most of our exchanges too superficial to be truly meaningful? Is all of this conspiring to make us dumber and more unproductive? Not so fast! Here are some key things to remember about social media and the way it impacts how we think.

Everyone Uses Social Media Differently

Social tools are a means to an end. Saying that everyone trades information indiscriminately on social networks is too big of a generalization. Sure, some people will post headlines from The Onion thinking that they’re true, but not everyone has a poor understanding of satire.

Social Media Connects Users with Experts

Look at the connection between Twitter and digitally savvy journalists. It’s one example of users gaining unprecedented access to direct conversations with experts in vast array of fields.

Demographics Tell a Different Story

If you think social networks are oversaturated with selfies, cat pics and other musings from self-involved millenials, you might want to rethink a few stereotypes. On social networks like Twitter, the key descriptors are "young, mobile and educated."

Everyone’s a Critic

From the moment something is published online, a multitude of voices can respond and critique it. People are actively engaged in ongoing conversations, sometimes around issues that they’re passionate about and many times with other professionals in their fields. That kind of engagement spurs people to construct persuasive arguments even as they’re exposed to views that challenge their existing beliefs.

Some People Think the Web is Wiring Us to Be Smarter

Not every researcher, scientist or talking head that takes on social media or the Internet as a target of study believes that it’s making us dumber. Some researchers argue that the opposite is actually true and that the way our brain interacts with the web is fundamentally changing the way we think for the better.

How do you feel about the way social media has made you think about information and connections in your own life? Do you find yourself guilty of getting “click happy” and sharing content before you’ve tested to see if it’s valuable and accurate? Do you think social media could actually help you become a more dynamic thinker with a wider range of perspectives? Share your thoughts below.

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