Social Media Is A Big Waste Of Time

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You know the drill, the minute something becomes popular, some report comes out making claims about how much money is being pulled out of the economy because we’re wasting our time on it.

Social media is no different. In fact, it’s not even social media as entirety. We’ve seen instances where Facebook has been accused of wasting millions of dollars on being a time suck. The same has happened with YouTube and Twitter (more on that here: Gigaom – News Flash: Your Employees are Wasting Time on the Internet). We’re always quick to blame the technology and not the people. I always argue that those who are not wasting their time on YouTube (because a company has blocked it) have probably figured out something else to do to waste their time (hint: they’re not happy and energized to be doing their jobs … it’s not YouTube).

Social media is a big-time time sucker.

That was the news last week in the AdWeek news item, Social Networking: A Waste of Time? (Oct. 7, 2010). "Here’s a sign of social networking’s growing presence in modern life: It has surpassed TV viewing as the preeminent waster of people’s time," stated the news item. "At any rate, it tops the waste-of-time standings in a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll released this week. Respondents were given a list of six activities and asked to pick the one they regard as ‘your biggest waste of time.’ A plurality (36 per cent) chose ‘social networking,’ putting it easily ahead of runner-up ‘fantasy sports’ (25 per cent) and third-place ‘watching television’ (23 per cent). Few votes went to ‘shopping’ (nine per cent), ‘reading’ (two per cent) or ‘your job’ (two per cent)."

Social media is only a waste of time if you’re using it to waste your time.

It’s not because it’s a slight against online social networks that I’m upset (or because I base part of my business livelihood on the success of social media as a marketing channel), but we have to meet the people who lump "reading" and their "jobs" as their "biggest waste of time." Wasting your time should probably be defined as an activity that requires nothing proactive, while utilizing minimal effort and with even less of a valued outcome in terms of overall life benefit. But, if you look at social media like that, you’re missing the point entirely.

Social media is the fabric that binds our culture together.

Maybe not our current, entire culture but the shift is happening in a very non-subtle way. Contrast the news above with this blog post last week from MediaPost‘s Engage – GenY titled, Social Network Disconnect, which looks at GenY (those born between 1982 and 2004). Prior to looking at the stats presented below, you should know that Gen Y is (according to the Blog post), "the first generation in U.S. history to exceed 100,000,000 members is typified as multi-cultural, multi-racial, multilingual, multimedia and multi-tasking. Most importantly, Gen Y is the first generation in human history to, as children, be more technologically advanced than their parents."

Are you ready to have your mind blown?…

"Their use of technology is pervasive and sophisticated. You can pretty much count on the totality of Gen Y to be online and connected. Research conducted by the Insights division of Ypulse in September 2010 94 percent of GenY to be on Facebook, spending 11.4 hours a week within its pearly blue gates. This connectivity is nearly ubiquitous, with more than three quarters (78 per cent) of high school and college students connecting to their preferred social network via their mobile phone. Mobile devices and the Facebook platform are the glue that keeps this generation connected. When Gen Y communicates with each other, their preferred tool is a text message (55 per cent state texting as the primary means of communicating with their friends), followed by Facebook (24 per cent). Voice-based communications (land line, VOIP and mobile voice calls) among Gen Y represents only 10 per cent of communications, IM is the primary communications tool for seven per cent and email is dominant among a meager one per cent of Gen Y when communicating peer to peer."

It’s not just because it’s cool to be on Facebook.

Regardless of what the platform is, there’s something bigger brewing beneath the surface here. The massive speed of change and adoption of new media among this huge generation is changing our society (they’re not just idly sitting by watching TV, flipping through magazines or playing video games). From whom they trust and rely on to how they perceive privacy and relationships. These youngish people are doing things in a more open and sharing environment (and, yes some of it is not in a positive way – look no further than the tragedy that took place at Rutgers University a few weeks back when a young person committed suicide after a video was posted on YouTube without their consent), and this is having current implications on how society evolves… and we haven’t even begun to look at the long-term society impact of this change in terms of business, education, privacy, communications and connectivity. What we do know is that you can hardly dismiss this massive shift as a waste of time (unless all you’re doing is watching YouTube videos of people falling off of treadmills – which, admittedly, never gets tiring).

Is this causing such a huge societal change that we can’t even begin to imagine the implications, so we have decide to ignore it or pass it off as a time waster, or is the reality something much bigger that we – as the business leaders of today – must begin to grasp and embrace?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. I agree with the statement that it’s the people using it and how they use it. If you’re just on it and not really putting it to a productive use then of course it’s a time waster. But if you plan out your strategy and work at you should see some kind of results.

  2. Great article! It’s so true – people always blame the technology. It’s the Average Joe that is the time waster, not Facebook – or Twitter, or YouTube, etc. Social Media is like anything else – it is what you make it. If you want to use it to waste your time, go ahead – but the possibilities are much broader than that.

  3. Playing catch-up, learning the language, researching and engaging in the new social media medium feels like an up hill battle but not a time waster. The more I learn the more I want to use and practice and participate in…. Waste time spending your day chatting with friends on FB while at work – yes – Time Waster. Spending hours a day surfing random and useless curios instead of time with family or fitness – Oui – Time Waster.
    There will be a degree of reduced productivity while learning – but no time wasted…

  4. I wish more companies would look at Social Media and ask themselves is there is true economic value to the company and brand before engaging. Yes, I’m talking strategy and analytics before outcome.

  5. Not letting people on YouTube or Facebook is just going to make them text more or take up smoking or something else. I don’t have much time for casual Facebook or to watch mindless clips on YouTube, I’m too busy using the platforms to help our clients (and our business) grow. When I finally do have some free time, I’m usually not online playing around on Facebook and YouTube.

  6. Every individual controls their own time. The only way to waste time is too… waste time. Facebook and YouTube don’t make time wasting any easier… they’re agnostic. People need to change not the channels or platforms.

  7. Hi Mitch… I think something you put forward early in the piece is especially salient – that people consider it “wasting their time” because they are bored and unmotivated. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker points out that SM is about participation more than motivation and that networks by definition are the opposite of hierarchies – a leaderless tribe where the consensus becomes the rule. (Good or bad?) Pair that with your question about societal change at the end of your piece and I have to agree that the implications of this SM age are potentially bigger than we can all imagine.

  8. People waste time – not technology or tools. Social media has changed us and IS changing us daily. I see it in my own work habits, and awareness of and connectivity to others who are online. What concerns me is the absence of meaningful discussion of the pitfalls of social media – absence of downtime, shortening attention spans, rapid spread of harmful viral memes, etc.

  9. To reference your post from yesterday on Chief Marketing Technologists, perhaps an internal marketing role of theirs would be to transform wasted time via social networks into time spent on social networks with a goal in the back of employees’ minds.
    For work in a marketing agency, it’s so easy to transform time spent on blogs/facebook/twitter etc…into something useful such as creative inspiration or community insights. Perhaps the challenging part is getting employees to act on it.
    You’re dead-on about grasping and embracing the current culture. It’s been growing for years and it’s not going to go away overnight (if at all). People will always waste time but they can put to good use sooner or later.
    Great post, Mitch!

  10. What I wonder is: is it really possible, at this point, to imagine were are we heading, at all? Was it possible 10 years ago to imagine Yahoo! on its knees? Was it possible 6 years ago to imagine Google becoming de facto a country on its own (for what regards power and influence)? Or mere 3 years ago, would you have imagined Facebook to have half billion people on on it?
    Adapting to change, quick, is imperative, especially when the change you’re adapting to is gonna become something different tomorrow.

  11. I’m doubtful that they’re wasting time because they’re doing work but not leveraging it. They’re wasting time because they don’t like their work and they’re looking to do something else.
    That being said, I’m all for job reform at work 🙂

  12. We can’t see the future, but we can imagine it and test and learn with what we have. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about innovation and testing out our results to see how things behave.

  13. Excellent!
    Social media platforms explosion is representative of some basic human needs.
    Humans have always felt the need to communicate, to lurk, to converse, to express themselves, to compare stuff, to find meaning in virtual dimensions.
    Social media would’ve have the same traction 1000 years ago. Social media are just communication channels. Like cars, phones, rivers and mysticism.
    Now, finding ways to monetize these communication channels is another issue. And some do it better than others.
    However the argument is simple. Your consumers are here, shouldn’t your business be?
    And on the other hand, who are we to try and bend the human nature into more virtuous behaviors? If they use it, it is useful.

  14. It’s always fun to watch brands and big corporations try to make something bend to their will. It never does and they end up bending in the wrong direction to adjust (which is usually over 😉

  15. Amen, Mitch.
    If it’s not generating revenue, then it’s ego-stroking, time-sucking dead wood. Change the approach or kill it.
    That’s the only intelligent, profit-protecting response.

  16. YES, this is going to be bigger than anything we can imagine and ignoring it or passing it off is foolish (and no fun).
    Mltch, we need to find some curmudgeons who will leave comments contesting you and the rest of us who are in the “let’s go forth and conquer” crowd. I should check out online comments for this story on the Vancouver Sun and see if anyone disagrees. (newspapers always get freaks commenting)
    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

  17. OMG. This article so fits into my thinking that I have nothing to add. I will quote you on this: “Social media is only a waste of time if you’re using it to waste your time.”
    Ok, wait, I’ll add one little thing: this is an ad I wrote 15 years ago for Lotus Software about social sharing technology:
    “In 1876, the telephone was called an “expensive toy”, and when PC’s came out they were the next business toys and every big idea before and since has been called a toy by someone, sometime. So when we tell you we’ve got the next communication breakthrough, we’ve got only one question.
    Wanna play?”
    Thanks, always, for your great thinking and ability to articulate the issues Mitch.

  18. Agreed. I’ve never understood why companies ban Social Media in the office because, as you said, people will turn to other things such as texting and smoking to spend their extra time – both of which have far less value than Social Media. Somewhere along the lines Social Media got a bad wrap, one that’s tough to shake off.

  19. Dear Mitch,
    talking to my two older daughters, watching them using all kinds of social platforms and yes, wasting their time on them it dawned on me that the definition of “wasting time” is totally different for me than for them. For them “wasting time” is positive. It is part of growing up, of being a teenager, it is the virtual version of our “hanging out with the gang”. They join their various digital tribes, shooting the breeze and in the end they disconnect and go back to their analog reality.
    For my generation “wasting time” is negative. It is the equivalent of “not productive”. And don´t we have to be productive all the time? Especially the ad gang and the marketing people find it hard to embrace “wasting time”. Because how do talk to time wasters? How do you sell to time wasters? This is alien to us. And for me it is not so much about speculating about tectonic future shifts in behaviour. This is about accepting and embracing the fact that my generations idea of “wasting time” has been transported into the digital space by my kids. They are fine with it. They don´t need reeducation and us telling them how to spend their lifes.
    Thank you for all the great posts that you keep writing!!

  20. I totally agree with the statement “Social media is only a waste of time if you’re using it to waste your time”. To communicate with other people we need a channel, a tool to express our intentions whether it may be personal or business reasons.
    In business, social media has played a great role in marketing and advertising a business to promote goods and services to people around the globe. If used the right way, it helps produce great results and increase profits.
    Social Media, if used as a “time-killing” tool, then its totally trash. But if it is used with good intentions that provides profitable results, then it is a treasure!

  21. My definition of “wasting time” when I was growing up was being alone, watching television or playing video games. Look at young people now: reading, texting, creating videos, sharing on Facebook, etc… the passive media has become active.

  22. Some do it because they’re worried about people downloading bad stuff or heading over to a site that could create a breach in security. Others are leery of bandwidth costs. Having people streaming YouTube and downloading torrents all day can be costly.

  23. Is social media a waste of time? Yes… If you let it consume you and don’t know how to manage or control they way you spend your time.
    The problem with social media arises when kids/people in general start using it to replace daily interaction and socialization within their immediate environment… i.e. School environments, workplace, etc. There is a growing group of people, especially young ones, who are becoming stunted with IRL relationships… As they rely more on the virtual environment.
    One another note… And a matter of opinion… When coaching a specific insurance provider that locked out all social media websites to keep employees from wasting time, my response was… Can you not trust your own employees? Create your Social Media Policy. Let them know the rules about spending hours on Facebook/Twitter, etc… And then open it up. Honestly, in professional environments, employees are much like teenagers. Treat them like adults, and they’ll act like adults. Treat them with mistrust, and… well… you’re going to have problems.

  24. When i worked in the corporate world, we were prohibited from reading newspapers or magazines on the job. They were time sucks that took time away from our jobs. Most managers these days see social media as the same thing. They don’t understand it and how it can benefit them so they shut it down.
    It’s fairly common practice to eliminate that you don’t understand. Until someone explains it to them in a way that makes sense (Usually dollars) most companies will continue to block social media.

  25. Way back when, paperbacks were considered to be time wasters. Can you imagine a parent today trying to get their kids to NOT read!

  26. I feel twitter, facebook, instant messengers, youtube, texting devices etc., should be outright banned from being used in schools, places of work and even go so far as to say it’s illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to use social media or texting devices. Why? These are habit forming years and to create an impression that these social media outlets are a part of healthy living is ridiculous. Those are the years when children should be actively reading, exercising and socializing in person [NOT over the computer or texting device]. In fact, the aforementioned software and technology devices are arguably the biggest time wasting ideas ever to hit the market. Unfortunately what I would like won’t happen, since the sheer popularity and so called necessity, not to mention profit margins override common sense and healthy living choices.
    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pre-teens, teens and young adults whip out their iphone / blackberry / etc. to ‘appear’ important or busy. You can bet your bottom dollar these same people lie in bed at night texting away or playing on their computer device, sacrificing productive activities people their age used to participate in. Such as reading a good book or playing a game of chess / cards etc.,or imagine this: exercising. It’s not happening, unfortunately the lazy generation of ‘we want it and we want it now’ is here.

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