THERE’S A PROBLEM with Facebook’s focus on “community.”
Amid criticism of its data security and its role in the 2016 election, Facebook in June announced a change to its mission. No longer would the company strive to make the world more open and connected. Rather, the company declared, it would bring its 2.2 billion users, and thus the world, “closer together” by building community. One method for achieving this? Less passive consumption of content, more emphasis on “meaningful” social interactions with friends and family.
But seeing posts from friends and family may make young people feel worse after spending time on social networks, according to a new study from research firm Ypulse, commissioned by image-sharing site Imgur. The survey, conducted in late February, asked 2,100 13-to-35-year-olds in the US how they felt after using popular digital-media services including Netflix, YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, Pinterest and Snapchat.
The study found that the more “social” elements a service has, the more likely it is to make users unhappy. On the flip side, the more a site focuses on entertainment and discovery, the happier its users say they are. “Entertainment platforms are giving [users] something to be happier, instantly lifting the mood and changing the conversation, whereas ones that are focused on self-identity and personal branding are not winning in that arena,” says Jillian Kramer, vice president of research at Ypulse.
The majority of users surveyed reported feeling better after spending time on purely entertainment-focused sites including Spotify and Netflix. About half of users felt better after spending time on sites that rely heavily on professional content, like Pinterest and YouTube. Fewer than half of users reported feeling better after visiting social media sites including Snapchat and Instagram (44 percent), Reddit (37 percent), Twitter (36 percent), and Tumblr (33 percent). Facebook fared the worst: Just 29 percent of Facebook users felt better after using the platform, and 16 percent reported feeling less happy.
The sentiment is also reflected in whether users think their time spent on a platform is “well spent” or “wasted.” Only 1 percent of Spotify users and 9 percent of Netflix users think they waste time on those platforms; the majority say their time is well spent. “Even though TV watching feels like a waste of time, I also see the benefits in unwinding and de-stressing watching stuff like Queer Eye,” said a 20-year-old woman who participated in the survey.
On the question of time well spent, Facebook has a problem. Facebook was the only platform in the survey where more users said their time was wasted than well spent. According to the survey, just 23 percent of Facebook users said the platform provided “time well spent” while 31 percent felt their time on Facebook was wasted.
Ironically, Facebook is the only platform that has explicitly adopted the “time well spent” mantra from its critics, namely Tristan Harris, an activist for ethical technology design who created a nonprofit called Time Well Spent. In January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced several features and changes to the Facebook platform that he hoped would “make time on Facebook time well spent.” Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Facebook’s plan to foster time well spent is based on research it has conducted with Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University. Kraut found that more one-on-one interactions on Facebook resulted in a more positive experience on the site. As a result, Facebook announced it would optimize its news feed to encourage “meaningful interactions” and discourage passive scrolling.
Facebook was also the only platform that appears to be losing momentum, with more users reporting they spend less time on it this year (29 percent) than say they spend more time on it (26 percent). One 23-year-old woman cited the preponderance of drama: “Why do I need to know that Bri’s babydaddy is on meth again, but he’ll be fine, he just needs our support? Where is all the cool stuff?” A 25-year-old woman complained about “seeing the idealized versions of others and feeling like my life doesn’t compare.”
Even if young people don’t love Facebook, the company can still reach them through its subsidiary, Instagram. The site remains popular, but topped the list of social networks when it comes to its users experiencing depression (23 percent), anxiety (20 percent) and loneliness (24 percent) after logging on. Users complained anecdotally that the site feels “inauthentic,” with people building their personal brands and shilling for sponsors. “I feel like my life amounts to nothing when I see how much better everyone else’s life is (traveling the world, friends hanging out without me, people leading better lives),” wrote a 25-year-old man.
Imgur’s study shows that people are happy when they passively consume entertainment content, and less happy when looking at personal content from friends and family. Ypulse, which has also worked with Facebook and Spotify, concludes that users are drawn to platforms that help them relax. “Relationships are messy and entertainment is gratifying. Watching drama in entertainment is someone else’s drama,” said Dan Coates, president of Ypulse. Coates noted that the study participants’ anecdotal comments showed that most people want to see personal content from their friends and family, but feel unhappy that an algorithm controls what they see and when, as is the case on social platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
The study’s findings conveniently support the mission of Imgur, a small company that’s not widely known but boasts a monthly audience of 250 million users. Imgur’s mission is to “lift the world’s spirits;” the site commissioned the study to see if its content was in fact making people happier. Had the study had produced different results, COO Roy Sehgal says, the company likely would have made changes to its product. “We wanted to know, ‘Are we a problem? Are we contributing to the problem?’” he says. According to the survey, Imgur is not. Sixty-two percent of users report feeling better after using the site.
Like Reddit, a site where many Imgur images are shared, Imgur allows users to “upvote” and “downvote” posts. Sehgal says Imgur incorporates these votes in deciding what to show users; many other social networks rely instead on engagement, or how many people interact with a piece of content. The problem with optimizing for engagement is that a piece of content that is extremely unpopular or offensive might get lots of reactions from people who don’t like it, Sehgal says. Sites which optimize for engagement may spread such content. On Imgur, he says, a post with a lot more downvotes than upvotes would get buried. Further, Imgur is not afraid to remove offensive content, unlike Reddit, which views itself as a free speech platform, Sehgal says. Imgur also has a no-selfie rule. “Real, personal stuff, that’s what gets [society] into trouble,” he says.