Is blabbing about yourself on Facebook like getting laid?

Your brain on Facebook

One of my favorite blogs is Techdirt, especially the posts written by Mike Masnick. Apart from being breathlessly prolific, he has a sharp eye – and tongue – for the idiotic measures promoted by governments, Hollywood and other would-be cyber-gatekeepers in the name of saving Western civilization from IP piracy and other putative evils.

Sometimes, however, Mike can be irritatingly dismissive. Witness the Friday post entitled “Sharing On Social Networks Triggers The Same Part Of Our Brains As Sex… Sorta,” which he files under the but-other-than-that-is-nothing-like-sex dept. He’s referring to a recent study by two Harvard psychologists that has achieved some notoriety, namely “Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding” – pdf here. (And btw, self-disclosure is a lot like sex, at least the kind practised without a second party.)

Mike trivializes the findings of a series of lab experiments that have something important to tell us about the things people do and say on social network sites – and why they do them, based on lots of MRI brain imaging. Mike claims the authors have done nothing more than point out that sharing information about yourself is “intrinsically rewarding” – as in what else is new? (“I don’t think that’s a particularly surprising finding.”) The handy example is all those relentlessly annoying tweets about what you’re having for lunch – which people obviously indulge in “because it feels good.” We also learn that attention-getting is “the same kind of thing as getting a brief glimpse of attractive members of the opposite sex.” From which we conclude what? That “science has proved that talking about yourself to lots of people and seeing attractive people make your brain happy.”

Mike’s punchline: “Case closed.”

Case not made. First of all, just because an assertion is intuitively obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone else, let alone empirically valid. Intuitions about social behavior mislead us in all kinds of ways. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”… except of course when “familiarity breeds contempt” and “out of site is out of mind.”

Second, the paper focusses on a key distinction that Mike’s post simply ignores:

“[The] value of self-disclosure may derive from two independent sources: both introspecting about the self and communicating information to other people. Because both factors robustly activate neural regions associated with reward and do not interact, each of these factors appears to contribute independently to the motivation for self-disclosure” (p.4).

Another nice detail lost in Mike’s rendition is the researchers’ use of trade-offs. The experimental participants did not merely feel good about self-disclosure – they were also prepared to forgo cash rewards in order to stay focussed on themselves rather than on the beliefs and feelings of others:

“Just as monkeys are willing to forgo juice rewards to view dominant groupmates and college students are willing to give up money to view attractive members of the opposite sex, our participants were willing to forgo money to think and talk about themselves” (p.1).

The paper does a convincing job of explaining how the vast amount of online sharing of personal trivia that goes on 24/7 around the globe is prompted by adaptive, hard-wired reactions in the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area. Who knew?

Not I apparently. It has always seemed obvious to me that yacking online about what you’re having for lunch was aberrant behavior – say, the product of narcissism – rather than behavior associated with adaptive survival instincts. I’ve also encountered anecdotal evidence in interviews with Millennials to the effect that they get caught up in exchanging thousands of text messages a month not because it stimulates their reward centers. Rather they’re succumbing to peer pressure to respond within seconds to BFF’s messages, or risk creating the uneasy impression that something has gone awry in the relationship. I’m not clear how any of this fits the Harvard research; I’m just saying it’s complicated and not at all obvious.

Perhaps the most obvious non-obvious aspect of the urge to self-disclose online is that some people avoid it like the plague. Take George Clooney, who at the TIFF Up in the Air press conference in 2009 said famously he would “rather have a rectal examination on live TV by a fellow with cold hands than have a Facebook page.” Which is not to say Clooney gets no kick from self-disclosure or playing to an audience. But his quip certainly raises interesting questions about why some people feel the brain rewards in offline contexts but abhor dabbling in self-disclosure on the Web. (I’m pretty much with Clooney on the social media sharing thing.)

Why do these details matter?

We live in a world where a single platform provider (Zuckerberg) is on his way to signing up a billion members of the human race, which would be nearly half of all those online (Wolfram Alpha estimates the 2010 Internet population at just over 2 billion). Facebook users share a staggering amount of information about themselves: they spend 700 billion minutes using Facebook each month and install more than 20 million apps every single day (see Pew/Elon Imagining the Internet).

Thanks to Mr Hoodie and others in the business, we also live in a world where “frictionless sharing” is being deployed in extremely aggressive and intrusive ways, making the protection of the most basic forms of privacy increasingly problematic. The Atlantic’s Robert Wright posted a great piece today describing how the hazards of frictionless sharing get much, much worse when combined with the insidious use of “social reader” apps, as major news organizations like the Washington Post have done in what seems like sheer contempt for their own customers (see “Back Off, Mark Zuckerberg!”).

Ingenious strategy for getting the most from those obscene tuition fees

The incessant, irresistible lure of personal messaging is also having highly disruptive and mostly undesirable ramifications in the field of education, where millions of Millennials are doing themselves a serious disservice by succumbing to the self-disclosure impulse every time they sit down in a classroom and start to engage in what they imagine is multitasking.

We can disagree about lots of details here. But one thing that strikes me as entirely obvious is that the pleasures of self-disclosure on the Web do not amount to a “case closed” – far from it. One excellent indicator is the recent Pew/Elon survey report about Generation “Always On” (as discussed in my previous post). What I conclude from the comments submitted by hundreds of Internet stakeholders and critics is that we’re going to need a great deal more empirical research in the coming years to help us understand how the intensely personal nature of online life is reshaping how we think, work, interact with other people and, yes, stimulate our reward centers.

The case continues…