Vice to meet you

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Mid-February is typically the time when New Year's resolutions reach their sell-by date. By now, most good intentions have either fizzled out or taken up permanent residence. And old addictions like smoking will most probably have returned with a vengeance.

It's like going to the store to get milk and coming back with everything else besides.

Lezette Engelbrecht, online features editor, ITWeb

But if a recent study is correct, one of the most pernicious addictions in society today is not chemical in nature, but social.

A recent survey by the University of Chicago revealed that social shooting up is harder to crack than either cancer sticks or cocktail hours. It even has a name - the somewhat ironic acronym FAD: Facebook addiction disorder.

The study tracked 205 people as they logged their daily desires, producing around 8 000 “episodes” showing which activities participants craved and whether they succumbed to temptation.

The study found that while sex and sleep were the things people longed for most during the day, the urge to check Facebook and Twitter was the hardest to resist. Respondents were able to curb their impulses to have a quick romp in the street or blow their savings on shoes, but when it came to status updates... well, that's another story.

Perhaps it's that very perception - the seeming benign nature of social networking, compared to publically scorned habits like substance abuse - that makes it such a “different story”. Smoking, drinking and splurging are all costly, need a dedicated time or space, and have seemingly greater long-term effects. A few tweets or status updates pale in relative consequence.

In addition, living in an attention-deficit society means hardly anyone can afford to be doing only one thing at a time. So we drive and eat and talk, or text and tweet and walk, all the time taking in additional sensory information. People feel they have to keep up and be heard, in their online as well as offline lives, and increasingly, in both at the same time.

If you're anything like me, this manifests most prominently in the “just quickly” habit, where one finds some logical justification for briefly visiting Facebook. “I just quickly have to inbox so-and-so, or they'll think I'm rude. I just quickly have to view that photo or check if there are any birthdays today - it'll take two seconds.” Except it never does; inevitably these quick checks morph into a list of responses, comments and likes that gobble up the better part of an hour, without you even having done what led there in the first place. It's like going to the store to get milk and coming back with everything else besides. It's a compelling distraction.

This compulsive urge to check-in may seem like a trivial past-time taken to the extreme, but one psychologist argues it goes much deeper than idle socialising. Facebook and Co speak to the fundamental human need for connection and community.

Love me, love me

At first glance, social networking seems to fit nicely into the third tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - love and affection - and even the higher esteem levels such as status, achievement, reputation and personal fulfilment.

But as director of the Media Psychology Research Centre, Pamela Rutledge points out none of our needs, not even some of the base-level ones, can be met without social connection and collaboration. “The system of human needs from bottom to top: shelter, safety, sex, leadership, community, competence and trust, are dependent on our ability to connect with others.”

She argues that, unlike the neatly separated needs in Maslow's pyramid, humans are far more interlocked and messy. “The need to belong is a driving force of human nature, not a third-tier activity,” says Rutledge.

Some will argue that the need for connection and collaboration were met long before social networks were around, but that misses the point. In much of today's society, this is the chief way for people to find belonging in a community setting. It's simply the tool used to scratch the relational itch. It's on these platforms where bonds are formed and social capital earned; where relationships are maintained and individuality expressed. For many, Facebook has become the glue holding their social lives together - and a damned sticky one at that.

Social networking is so addictive then not because we're a generation of time-wasting narcissists, but because people crave connection, and Facebook makes it easy to engage and find affirmation, any time of the day, wherever you are.

This links to social networks' other big draw card - rewards. The positive reinforcement people get from comments and likes on statuses, sharing links and playing games provides a rush that keeps them coming back for more - in a somewhat standard Pavlovian response. It's an easy way to get a high without paying much, receiving disapproving stares, or having to go out of your way.

Also, unlike real-life engagement, you get to control the interaction - you choose when to encounter someone, who can see your content and what to say without waiting for the other person to finish. It's a perfect environment to wield control over in a world that often seems highly uncontrollable and oblivious to your wants or needs.

Consequently, because one's sense of acceptance becomes so closely tied to online activities, there's a constant pressure to maintain and update them. It's something of a self-sustaining loop - in order to get your social needs fulfilled, you have to spend time creating content that draws reactions, so you're either online to get an affirmation hit, or because you're busy setting up the next one. You're only ever as good as your last post, as it were.

Ultimately, Facebook isn't new; it's just a new manifestation of an ancient desire to connect. It makes our social cravings more tangible and visible, and as such, more available to researchers for studying human behaviour. There's a reason Facebook more has more than a billion members and is one of the hottest assets around. The platform's entertaining veneer masks a much deeper, underlying yearning for attachment, and calls up some interesting considerations for how these will evolve in future. It's not a passing fad, but a social experiment with constantly adjusting variables. You can't judge a book by its cover, the saying goes, nor a social network, it seems, by its face.

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