Imagine for a minute a future in which teens brag about how long they’ve spent scrolling Instagram, judge people based on their Tweet count or decide who sits with them at lunchtime depending on how many hours they’ve clocked on YouTube. It might not be so out of the question; a handful of our favourite apps are about to give us all a healthy dose of reality but, based on what we already know about how people use social media sites, the result of new usage insights could be far from healthy.
‘Time well spent’ has been a top-of-mind topic in 2018, with a particular emphasis being placed on Facebook-owned Instagram and Google-owned YouTube following growing concerns over social media’s relationship with our mental health. At Google’s I/O conference a few weeks ago, the company announced new controls coming to YouTube which will remind users to take a break and allow them to set time limits on their viewing. Similarly, Instagram CEO, Kevin Systrom, recently confirmed that the photo-sharing platform will also be introducing several new features, including a tab dedicated to usage insights, a mute button and a ‘you’re all caught up’ warning, to improve the quality of time spent on the app by identifying the most harmful, passive consumption behaviours and help users to better manage said time.
Usage stats will be the latest vanity metric for users, influencers and brands alike
Along with these features will also come an analytical overview of user behaviour, including total view count for YouTube and, we expect, total time spent for Instagram – what will surely be a scary number for some. But the question is, what good will knowing this number actually do? It’s not uncommon for features to be introduced to social platforms with the intention of one purpose and, thanks to user hacking, end up being widely used and abused to achieve the total opposite. For a time spent stat, this could mean that what is meant to shame, warn and deter people away from spending too much time – whatever that may be – on social media could actually become an aspirational point-scoring system for the fiercest social media warriors.
Gamers, for instance, have long used their total run count as an additional form of scoring, earning bragging rights for only the most dedicated gamers. If this happens with social media, we could see the most obsessive Instagrammers and YouTube-bingers wearing their ridiculously high social media usage like a badge of honour, the same way that many already take pride in their Snap Streak score or their Timehop day counter. In fact, Snapchat and Timehop actually go as far as rewarding users for coming back daily by positioning usage stats as high scores, so users are already accustomed to viewing their personal usage stats in a positive light. The concern is that if other platforms begin to release these stats too, then what is currently an isolated trend could spread to the 500 million and 30+ million amount of people using Instagram and YouTube daily, respectively – not to mention users on other platforms which will surely follow suit sooner or later.
Metric trends fluctuate just as others do on social; first, it was all about having hundreds of thousands of followers, then it was better to have between 3-5K, then engagement figures took priority over follower count. When new usage stats become available to users, influencers and brands alike, who’s to say that, just like the number of likes, views or follower count, usage insights wouldn’t then come into fashion and become the next vanity metric, ending up not only being praised but used as the latest way in which to determine who is succeeding on social?
Warnings won’t be enough to deter the biggest addicts
Last year, Instagram revealed that, on average, its users below the age of 25 spent ‘more than 32 minutes a day’ on the platform and those over the age of 25 were spending “more than 24 minutes a day” on it. That figure has increased since and what’s more, according to a survey from Pew Research Center, about half of social media users ages 18 to 24 (51%) say it would be extremely hard to give up social media. So even if they weren’t abused and even if they do have the best of intentions, would usage insights and pop-up warnings even be enough to change that fact?
The catch about these digital wellbeing initiatives is that, short of platforms blocking access to their apps after a certain amount of time (which, let’s face it, isn’t going to happen) users will still need to exercise a certain amount of self-control in order to reap the benefits of these tools and genuinely take a more balanced and healthy approach to social media. Pop-up warnings and proper labelling might be a step in the right direction for social platforms but at the moment the steps being taken are a transparent response to overwhelming pressure from governing bodies to take action. It’s reminiscent of the law change which required all tobacco products to be blanket packaged and covered in warning labels; these methods might be effective in deterring young people from starting smoking but the fact remains that if you’re already addicted, a warning label won’t suffice to make you quit – all it can do is provide information. Just like smoking, social media is inherently addictive and, just like a warning label on a cigarette packet, usage insights will only serve to remind us what we already know about our bad habits – what users choose to do with that information is up to them.
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