Are social networking sites addictive?

Addictive by Design

Web sites are a product, and any product pusher wants return customers. When more visitors keep returning to a site, it means more ad revenue. And more ad revenue means more money for the company that owns the site. Programmers design every element on a social networking site to suck you in and keep you coming back [source: Caruso].

How do they do this? Sites like Twitter and Facebook offer "status updates" where users can enter a few short phrases about what they're doing at that very moment. Users may find themselves constantly checking their friends' updates, or changing their own updates on a regular basis. If you comment on someone else's photo or update, sites will generate an email to let you know. You can reach out and "poke" a friend, take a quiz or survey and compare the results with your friends or upload a photo of your new puppy doing something cute so everyone can ooh and ahh over him. You reach out to the site and it reaches out to you -- keeping you coming back from a few to a few dozen times a day.

With the increasing popularity of wireless devices like the BlackBerry or iPhone -- devices that can move lots of data very quickly -- users have access to their social networks 24 hours a day. Most social networking sites have developed applications for your mobile phone, so logging on is always convenient. Social networks also tap into our human desire to stay connected with others [source: Kirschner]. The rush of nostalgia as you connect with your former grade-school classmate on Facebook can be quite heady and exciting.

But what's the main reason we find these sites so addictive? Plain old narcissism. We broadcast our personalities online whenever we publish a thought, photo, YouTube video or answer one of those "25 Things About Me" memes. We put that information out there so people will respond and connect to us. Being part of a social network is sort of like having your own entourage that follows you everywhere, commenting on and applauding everything you do. It's very seductive.

In 2008, researchers at the University of Georgia studied the correlation between narcissism and Facebook users. Unsurprisingly, they found that the more "friends" and wall posts a user had, the more narcissistic he or she was [source: Live Science]. They noted that narcissistic people use Facebook in a self-promoting way, rather than in a connective way. It may be an obvious theory, but it also suggests that social networks bring out the narcissist in all of us.

Social networks are also a voyeuristic experience for many users. Following exchanges on Twitter or posts on Facebook and MySpace are akin to eavesdropping on someone else's conversation. It's entertaining and allows you to feel like a "fly on the wall" in someone else's life [source: Solis].

Social networking sites also publicly list your "friends" or "followers" -- giving you instant status. How many people do you know online who spend all their time trying to get more friends, more followers, more testimonials? We work hard in real life to elevate our statuses, make friends and search out boosters for our self-esteem [source: Ellison]. Online social networking provides this to us, and we don't even have to change out of our sweatpants to get it.

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