The democratising potential of social media have long been heralded. Successive government ministers, starting with Helen Coonan, Stephen Conroy and now Malcolm Turnbull, have all talked up the marvels of "user-generated" media where everyone can have a say and produce their own content. But the next time you hear some version of "we are relaxing the laws around media ownership in this country because we are living in a world of citizen journalists and so many sources of information and entertainment that makes the old laws redundant", think again.
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Can't stop clicking
A new study conducted at Monash University entitled "Facebook, disenchantment and deactivation: The views of young Australian university students", the findings of which are yet to be published, has found that the opposite is true. The Honours research has found that the main way people interact with Facebook — which has the largest user base of any social media in Australia — is for "validation".
Very little new content is produced, and less information gained, other than a kind of online small talk. Where information is received it is through media sharing of content produced by the mainstream media that governments seem so keen on deregulating.
The study included a two week survey of 560 respondents conducted in July this year, of which 83 per cent were studying at a university. Three-quarters of those studying said they checked Facebook more than five times a day.
Of the students at the high end of Facebook checking, many felt it to be an unhealthy addiction. One student reported checking their Facebook account ten times an hour, 18 hours a day.
The more addictive behaviour was attributed to the Facebook mobile app, which enabled continual short bursts of updates all day.
And participants reported that when they did check Facebook, they were just passively skimming through content at a very superficial level. This is particularly interesting in terms of the claim that Web 2.0 is a form of "produserly" media, where everyone is producing their own content.
The term "produsage" was popularised by Axel Bruns and Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, when they described the way new web environments let people switch between using existing content and producing alterations and extensions.
A key element of Bruns and Schmidt's argument, as well as that of Claudia Grinnell, is that it assumes a high level of active engagement from the user. However, participants in this study described the opposite phenomena.
Despite compulsive account checking, in some cases up to almost two hundred times per day, participants described an increasing lack of active participation.
In some cases participants were even judgemental of those who were highly active or seen as contributing too much content. This suggest a shift in usage practices where users have lost the inclination to actively contribute and produce their own content.
Steve Rubel, an executive at one of the world's largest public relations firms Edelman, argues that we are entering the third age of the internet, which is one of "validation".
When social networking began to escalate there was a 'friend-ing' arms race, where everyone tried to accumulate as many friends as possible. This devalued the idea of online friendship.
Now, Rubel says, that we are living in an age where there is "too much content and not enough time".
The "internet generation" is spread wide and thin, as access to vast networks is reduced to a few clicks.
The rapid uptake of social media has brought on an overload of access to both information and people, forcing users to make more critical judgements when operating online.
People are no longer actively engaged with mundane content produced by their "friends" online. Instead, Rubel explains that in the age of "validation", the "academic or expert is highly trusted" as "people want to know people who know their stuff".
Perhaps the need for validation is an attempt to cut through the overwhelming feed of clutter which permeates our increasingly mediated daily lives, if not just our news feed.
David Holmes is Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies at Monash University. Anna Matwijiw is an Honours Student in Communications at Monash University.. The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.