Does social media really kill productivity?

Closeup of guy working on a laptop indoor iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) People like numbers. So whenever it's established that we spend a lot of time on something (March Madness game watching, getting stuck in traffic, staying home sick) someone attempts to put a dollar figure on the productivity cost. We all know we waste a lot of time on the internet. So a website called Learn Stuff recently produced an infographic calculating the productivity cost of time wasted on social media; the figure reported on Mashable is $650 billion per year.

But if no one checked Facebook at work, would our GDP really jump by that much?

I doubt it. Here's why. First, no one can get through a whole workday without taking a break. A little cyberloafing amounts to blowing off steam. If people weren't checking Twitter, they might be out smoking (another vice known for costing billions per year). They'd stay longer in the office cafeteria. They'd find reasons to run out to their car on errands. They'd make personal phone calls or thinly disguised work calls that are more for gossiping with co-workers than anything else. Workplace distraction did not begin with social media. It will not end when the next thing comes along, either.

Beyond that, though, we are increasingly finding that connection is a human need. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy last week, people posted via any mobile phone that still had juice on Facebook or Twitter, reporting on the status of homes and power outages. People with power offered warm places to sleep and hot meals to anyone reading. People in heavily damaged areas ran errands for each other -- drummed up on Facebook -- and volunteered to check on residences. There was much commiserating, much rejoicing when the power came back on and when insurance approved a rental car (all those photos of cars flooded in parking garages should come with a note: Those vehicles were each somebody's way of getting around).

People will do whatever it takes to feel connected to humanity, particularly in tough times. Failing to recognize that is like saying "If we didn't give people lunch breaks, productivity would jump by $500 billion!" No it would not. You'd have a lot of hungry and miserable people. If anything, the ability to log onto social media probably makes people stick around at the office longer, rather than leaving to have real human interaction. Viewed that way, a little cyberloafing may actually be a productivity win.

How much time do you spend daily on social media?

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