Clay Shirky
NYU Interactive Telecommunications Professor

Facebook Rehab: The Danger of Internet Addiction

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An Internet addict warns that a large number of people already suffer from social network addiction.

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). His courses address, among other things, the interrelated effects of the topology of social networks and technological networks, how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1996. His columns and writings have appeared in Business 2.0, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review and Wired.

Question: What is the value of being an active consumer rather than a passive consumer?

Clay Shirky: I think the great driver of all of these participatory changes is the choice by individuals to be active instead of passive.  We fed ourselves on a notion that humans were office drones at work and couch potatoes at home and it’s just kind of shuttling back and forth from one to the other.  And then when the opportunity to participate came about, even in relatively small ways, right?  "I’m going to be sharing photos of this thing, or I wrote a poem I’m going to put it up on my blog and maybe only three people read it, but that’s more than none."  That almost all of that is personal drive.  Like that’s the big, that the big producer of the change and the individual participants are the beneficiaries.  Right?  That the choice to be active benefits the person who makes that choice. 

The beneficiaries downstream of that, as we talked about earlier, really depends on what kind of sharing is being done.  So, if I make a new LOLcat, or I find the cutest picture ever and I give it the funniest caption ever, it makes some people laugh.  Right?  You can’t really claim a big social benefit there.  If at the other extreme, I met patients like me and I’m trying to change medical research culture, I might get a disease understood and a cure developed faster.  And that benefits not only everyone that has the disease; it benefits society as a whole for having fewer resources go into the treatment of whatever disease it is.  There’s a lot of work recently on ALS. 
And so once you get past an individual who chooses to be active, getting benefit for themselves, you really have to look at what the participation is doing to see who benefits, but the range of benefits that are possible from, you know, harnessing this cognitive surplus is quite extraordinary. 
At what point does too much productivity or activity become a bad thing?  

Clay Shirky: I’d say it’s bad when it becomes addictive.  All right, and there’s a big discussion about whether or not the word "addiction" is an appropriate word.  A large clinical conversation about Internet addiction et. al.  But I will tell you that in the early ‘90s I felt it.  I used the word “addict” to describe myself in a completely unironic way.  I was addicted to something called UseNet which is the global set of bulletin boards and I had the addict's classic pathology, which is that I needed to be on UseNet every day, not because it made me happy, but after awhile because if I didn’t do it, it made me feel bad, which is the... and I remember it, literally.  I remember the morning where I woke up and I did not need to check my email.  And I thought oh... it was as if a fever broke.  The deeply wired pleasures of social interaction coupled with the kind of mediated space we live in can create these kinds of addictions in people, whether it’s updating their profile page on a social network, or it’s playing a game.  And it can lead people to do many of the things that the pathology of addiction does, which is to cut themselves off from their friends, to neglect their social life, neglect their schoolwork, neglect their work, and so forth.  And those are the kinds of things that society has always grappled with.  Right? You know, it’s the problem around Gambler’s Anonymous, right?  Where it’s not that you’re injecting a chemical into your body, it’s not like alcoholism, or cocaine, or what have you.  But it is the activity that is changing the... you know, that’s giving you the endorphin rush or giving you the chemical consistency, like, in your brain.
And as with gambling, there are kinds of activities that can become addicting.  My personal guess, although I am not a clinician, my personal guess is that Internet addiction and even more than Internet addiction, particular classes of addiction—social gambling addiction, social network addiction and so forth—are going to be understood better in the next five years.  They’re turn out to be much rarer than the hand wringing in the press currently... would currently have you believe, where everyone who uses Facebook is an addict or a computer addict.  But there will be a non-trival number of cases where people are genuinely addicted.  I think as a society then we’ll have to find ways to convince those people, or help them out of that addiction in the same way we have done with gambling as gambling has spread outside of Vegas to include most of the country.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

  • Dystopia is a Closed System

    Clay Shirky: If we end up forestalling or shutting down one way or another the open Internet in the name of you keeping Hollywood safe, or fighting off viruses, I think it will be a huge loss for humankind.