February 04, 2009

Eight Forms of Social Networking Depression: Are You Suffering?

Even if you have been staring at your computer screen all day, you've likely figured out it's a scary world out there right now. Scads of people are being laid off, in practically every market - including, very likely, people you know, work with, or even you.

Companies that you used to rely on as a standard are begging for bailout money, going out of business, or being purchased at prices well below what they would have received six months or six years ago. Savings and investment accounts are being decimated as credit card debt rises and retirement plans are mere fractions of what they used to be. And all that bad news piles up - making some of the more frivolous things we do online seem even less important than they used to be, giving some of us a sharper edge and making us a lot more irritable. The result can send some folks into what I'm calling social network depression - the manifestation of these frustrations, spilling over from the real world and into the virtual world.

There are many different ways you can see social networking depression illustrate itself. Here are a few cases:

1) The Depression of Getting Less Attention

The individual will claim to see less activity on a site than there used to be, even if they haven't changed the way they use it. (Example)

This suggests that the site itself might not be growing, that other users are spending time elsewhere, or that the service may have peaked, starting its inevitable slide downward. What as the interpretation is subjective, it may be random, incorrect, or the result of other areas on the site being more interesting.

2) The Depression of Repetition

The individual will grow bored of a network, saying the newness has worn off as the same jokes, stories and pictures get spread time and again. (Example)

The suggestion could be that as people fall into a routine, their sheer repetitiveness grows dull, and the social aspects are diminished. But it is not clear if the individual themselves is seeing shifting tastes or if external pressures are changing their outlook.

3) The Depression Of Despised Popularity

The individual can start to question whether what we do online is more a herd mentality than one derived based on our own preferences, and questions the popular users' value. (Example)

The suggestion is that as lists are created, the same names are repeated time and again - whether they are bringing real value, or not adding much from their presumed areas of expertise. But as with #2, even if a person's original value was extremely clear, by the time you've run into them multiple times, across networks, their own value to you is likely diminished.

4) The Depression of False Prophets

The individual will openly complain about some of the social aspects themselves, such as popularity contests and self-proclaimed experts. (Example)

That popularity contests were annoying in high school doesn't mean they don't replicate themselves online. But, depending on the month, the individual complaining probably participated, or would do so more often if they were included or winning.

5) The Depression of Absence

The individual can take a self-imposed vacation from social networking, or can turn their blog over to the resume gods, hoping to land a job, instead of landing the next dozen followers and friend connections.

6) The Depression of Lost Focus

The individual can claim that all social networking tools are distractions and should be turned off, to maintain focus on "real work". (Example)

The updating "ping" of TweetDeck can be a big draw for the popular Twitter user. But there is the potential to operate under what I've termed continuous parallel attention, letting you complete your work tasks, stay on top of social aspects, and listen to music all at once.

7) The Depression of Snarkiness

The individual can change the tone of their comment streams on Twitter and other networks, moving away from promoting people, sites and links, to instead, getting sarcastic, passing around the meme of the day, and generally acting in contrary to their typical personality.

8) The Depression of Lost Value

The individual can declare the world of social networking and social media a waste of time, and swear they're quitting, to focus on things with "real value".

So what can you do? Maybe you've suffered a hint of social networking depression yourself, and find you are blogging less, sharing less, commenting less and simply having less fun online than you used to. Maybe instead you've seen your friends go through various stages - taking what used to be a fun, collaborative environment, and make it something where you can hardly tolerate what they've become.

In my opinion, the very worst aspects of social networking come from the very things we of course enjoy, leaderboards and statistics. In August I asked bloggers to relax, saying "nobody is keeping score", warning of blogging burnout and the self-imposed guilt that comes from gaps. The same push to relax should be applied with social networking.

Why did you start social networking in the first place? It wasn't to count friends or to participate in memes of the day, I would bet. Instead, it was more likely to find out news quickly, and find people with whom you share common interests. Now that times are tough, and people are questioning how they are spending their time, offline and online, it's no surprise that those things which don't have a clear, defined, line to revenue are being discarded, or at least, seeing strain.

The truth is that the social networks are mirrors for ourselves. When we are stressed about work, about money, about relationships, these strains will impact who were online as well.

On Monday, I spoke with a great friend about how I'd seen them change from an aggressive go-getter and evangelist, to a bitter, depressed introvert over the space of a few months. It so happened the kids were making noise in the background of our call, and they later texted me to my iPhone:
"Just talking to you helped and hearing the kiddies. There's more to life than this crap."
And it's true! I'm lucky that I've got two built-in distractions I can come home to. Maybe you don't. But while many people are grousing about the social networks themselves, the way people behave, and rank themselves, letting the offline trials seep into their online personas, the products underneath are actually getting a lot better.

Please do question social networking in general. Try and find out what it is that you're doing online and how you are spending your time. Think about whether you have a good work/play balance, or if the time you are spending in front of your computer monitor is detrimental to your offline and online health. But be aware that if you're getting negative and lashing out at your followers, your communities, and the very platforms that let you do it, you could be exhibiting signs of social networking depression. And it's not likely the tools. It's you.