Archive for March, 2012
Amanda Borland, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, sits at her computer scrolling through a list of names. Suddenly she stops and clicks on a picture. “That is a random person I have never talked to,” she says. In an instant, Borland “unfriends” another Facebook contact. Borland originally added these people while running for student government in high school; now she sees no reason to keep them as friends.
“For me, it is weird to reach out to someone who is technically linked to me personally, when I literally have no idea who they are,” Borland says.
The idea of “cleaning out” Facebook friends is getting more popular: The percentage of people unfriending other Facebook members rose from 56 percent in 2009 to 63 percent in 2011. In gross terms, 158 million people were unfriended in 2009, and more than a half a billion in 2011. Experts predict the trend will only increase in coming years, and they see it as a potential problem for Facebook’s business model, which relies on leveraging information gained from a user’s profile and personal networks.
Morley Winograd, director of the Institute of Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California, says the unfriending trend is only natural as the Facebook demographic shifts from largely college users to a majority older than 35. Older users are more concerned with privacy and want to limit access to their profiles to people they trust.
Millennials, on the other hand, are starting to use Facebook as a way to promote, manage and store their lives, deleting friends once a contact ceases to serve a function. As users delete friends, their networks shrink, and Facebook loses an edge in interconnectedness. This presents a problem for advertising: Facebook charges based on how well an advertisement is targeted to a user, and the more information Facebook can gather, the better they can target advertisements.
“If they have targeted all your friends, then they can serve up advertisements to you and your network,” says Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at USC. “As you decrease your reach, you decrease the ability of Facebook to advertise.”
Experts say that the fewer friends a person has, the harder it is for Facebook to interpret the world the subscriber comes from. In turn, the less information Facebook has, the less they can charge for advertisements on the subscriber’s page. Facebook declined to comment on how changes in user behavior could affect their business.
North suggests this trend points to a more significant issue. The unfriending phenomenon suggests many users view Facebook as a utility, a place to network or post a photo gallery, instead of a hangout spot. She says many social media experts have noticed the level of engagement is declining. People are not only unfriending, they are spending less time on Facebook overall.
“The phenomenon where people were living a big chunk of their lives hanging and interacting on Facebook is decreasing,” said North. “All of that does have an impact on the value of Facebook, whether it is the amount of engagement, going on fewer times, or using it more efficiently.”
Unfriending may also affect certain kinds of advertisements, like sponsored posts or page posts. These particular advertisements “rely on the size of the friend base of someone that ‘likes’ one of those types of ads,” says Kate Sylanski, an advertising specialist at Modcloth, the online retailer that advertises with Facebook. Modcloth has previously invested in sponsored posts, but the ads have not generated increases in revenue.
It’s also possible that the trend could enhance the accuracy of Facebook’s efforts to target users, because the company can assume that those defriended had little to no influence on the user’s life. “The ‘unfriending’ trend could make these types of ads more appealing to companies because ‘friends’ may hold more water and truly be people you feel connected to in your Facebook community, therefore making them a more like-minded audience,” Sylanski says.
But if ‘unfriending’ is a problem for advertisers, that means trouble for investors. Facebook’s “pending IPO depends on increasing the amount of revenue per subscriber that the site generates,” says Winograd, who researches the Millennial generation along with political scientist Mike Hais. The two theorize that fewer friends per person mean fewer referrals or less sharing. That means less revenue from each Facebook visit. The narrower a person’s network of friends, the less likely something on her page will go viral. In any case, “a reduction in people, in connection, or in time and energy spent on the site would make advertisers and potential investors nervous,” North says.
There is little hard data on the question so far, but North is seeking funding to conduct research on the trend and gather more concrete facts on the true effects of Facebook ‘unfriending.’
“[Unfriending] is a fact that a smart company such as Facebook will adjust to,” says Ira Kalb, president of consulting Kalb & Associates and an expert in marketing and business. “As long as Facebook has a large, engaged audience, it and [everything] off it will do well.”
If you’re a digital native, you should be aware that the internet may have partially rewired your brain in such a way that when you meet people face to face, you’re less capable of figuring out what they’re thinking.
No, I’m not joking. There’s a significant amount of scientific literature on this. Compared with people who didn’t grow up using computers and the internet, you may be slower to pick up on nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language.
That could be a liability if you want to work in a field such as consulting, financial advising, and diplomacy that requires face-to-face interactions. The trick, if you’re looking for a job in areas such as these, is to be aware of your possible shortcomings and try to compensate for them.
Research on the brain’s response to electronic media is fascinating, and not a little disturbing. On the plus side, it suggests that digital natives have higher baseline activity in the part of the brain governing short-term memory, the sorting of complex information, and the integration of sensations and thoughts — so, in certain respects, computers make you smarter. As if to underline that point, IQ scores are on the increase in the United States as the number of digital natives rises, and people’s ability to multitask without errors is improving.
But other research suggests that excessive, long-term exposure to electronic environments is reconfiguring young people’s neural networks and possibly diminishing their ability to develop empathy, interpersonal relations, and nonverbal communication skills. One study indicates that because there’s only so much time in the day, face-to-face interaction time drops by nearly 30 minutes for every hour a person spends on a computer. With more time devoted to computers and less to in-person interactions, young people may be understimulating and underdeveloping the neural pathways necessary for honing social skills. Another study shows that after long periods of time on the internet, digital natives display poor eye contact and a reluctance to interact socially.
Are digital natives really lacking the interpersonal skills necessary for certain types of jobs? An executive of a U.S. wealth-management firm told me that after the financial collapse in 2008, some of the bright young advisers were communicating with wiped-out clients via emails that said, essentially, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” Those who did meet with clients had little time for them and gave the impression that they weren’t interested in hearing clients’ stories. They seemed unable to empathize. So the firm let these employees go, replacing them with older advisers who were willing to sit down, look clients in the eye, and discuss matters face to face. That’s just one anecdote, but it resonates with HR executives I’ve spoken to in a variety of businesses that rely on building trust with customers.
So if you’re a digital native and you’re looking for a position in a field that requires human interaction, you’ve got your work cut out for you, and the first hurdle is landing the job. A few points to consider:
- Your interviewer may be specifically looking for evidence that you’re willing to make eye contact. Engage the interviewer — show a lively interest. This may not come easily.
- The interviewer also may be looking for evidence of your ability to pick up on nonverbal cues. Watch for and react to shifts in tone of voice or body language. One study suggests that 55% of person-to-person communication is nonverbal.
- Make clear that you understand the importance of face-to-face meetings and that you’re willing to sit down with people. If an interviewer or a questionnaire asks how you’d contact someone in a potentially fraught situation, don’t assume that email is the correct answer.
And once you get the job? That’s a whole other subject. Some researchers say the neurological changes wrought by computer use are reversible; others disagree. Even if they’re not, digital natives can train themselves to recognize the limitations of email and Facebook and choose face-to-face meetings if appropriate. They can also continually remind themselves that they may be a bit lacking in the ability to pick up on nonverbal cues — and that they need to make a special effort to pay attention.