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Is Social Networking Bad for You?

Using part of your other 8 hours on social networking websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter can build your human capital, but social networking has a dark side that can stifle creativity and foster narrow-mindedness if you're not careful.

Once upon a time if you had different opinions, interests, or views from the norm, you were considered odd or maybe even weird. Then the Internet came along and changed all that. No matter how different you are, and no matter how strange your beliefs, you can find a million others just like you.

On the surface, there's nothing wrong with this. No matter what you think or what you like, there's an online community just a few clicks away where everybody knows your name. The internet is now one big high school cafeteria. Jocks over here, nerds over there, brainiacs back there, stoners over . . . uh, stoners?

Do you remember how good it felt to "fit in" to feel connected to a shared belief, purpose, or enemy (or how alienating and lonely it felt to not fit in)? But do you also remember the prejudice and the close-mindedness of belonging to a clique? The term for this is groupthink.

Groupthink is when individual creativity, uniqueness, differences, and independent thinking is secondary to the group's cohesiveness and mission. The stronger and tighter the group, the easier it is for groupthink to rear its ugly head. In other words, groupthink is what happens when its members check their individuality and ideas at the door and succumb to the will of the group. At the extreme, groupthink is what is required for cults to form and function. See my related post, "How to Use Herd Behavior to Get Others to Follow."

One of the main contributors to groupthink according to Dr. Clark McCauley is "isolation of the group from outside sources of information and analysis." So how are groupthink and social media related? If I looked at your website bookmarks, reviewed your browser's history, and analyzed your RSS feeds, what would I find? I'd probably find an eclectic mix of information (e.g., sports, politics, self-help), but would I find varying perspectives within a similar interest?

All learning doesn't increase your human capital. If you limit your focus to a narrow band of information while sheltering yourself from other ideas and perspectives, you are preventing growth. For example, I'm into learning how to maximize my productivity and increasing my efficiency. For a time, I followed a very narrow technology-based view of how to do this. I read all of the "life hacks" blogs such as Lifehacker and Stepcase Lifehack and became obsessed with downloading the latest gadgets and implementing the latest tips and tricks. I listened to tech-focused productivity podcasts and audio books. I learned a great deal (and still do) from these websites and programs, but my mistake was not that I went deep into a topic (i.e., how to use technology to get more done), but that I stopped searching for learning new strategies outside of my narrow focus. Even though I was trying to build my human capital, I was actually decreasing it by having tunnel vision.

How to Avoid Social Networking Groupthink
Will you expand your mind and increase your creativity more by talking to people just like you or with people who are different? If you're always nodding your head in agreement, you're not exposing yourself to unique or contradictory ideas. Here are a few ways to maximize creativity and limit groupthink:

  • Join groups and communities that are completely different/opposite from what you believe. You don't have to agree, but try to at least understand their perspective and why they believe what they believe. If the O'Reilly Factor is your homepage, consider perusing the Huffington Post for a different view on the same topics.
  • Become Facebook friends with people who think differently and who will surprise you and cause you to question your ideas.
  • Read blogs and websites that don't recycle ideas.
  • Get into disagreements and friendly arguments by posting comments on blogs. Just make sure you do it respectfully. I've found using "What if we think of it like this..." to be a non-confrontational approach that can lead to a healthy exchange of ideas.
  • The more you are a fan of someone, the more often you need to question their assumptions and ideas. We tend to let our mental guard down around those we trust.

Break away from digital cliques by using social networking to expand and enrich your perspective and to grow your human capital. It's easy to find a million others who think just like you, but if those are the only people you are searching for and interacting with, you will be limiting your creativity and thinking. Your homework: Seek those different from you and ask yourself, "Is there another way to look at this?"

(Image of crowd by shoothead, Image of question authority by Mira Hartford, CC 2.0)
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