Some interesting articles popped up recently:
1) The Dubai School of Government and SAP report on Social Media and Arab Youth which asks the question “Can this huge usage of social media play an powerful role in the economic empowerment of the most active group in society, the Arab youth” finding that in the wake of the Arab Spring, in fact the answer is yes. Youth are using social media increasingly to look for jobs, upskilling and to create SME’s.
2) An infographic about how Facebook Addiction is affecting our minds. The most striking observation being that internet addicts experience a 10 - 20% decrease in speech, memory, motor control, sensory and other information, however people with significantly more Facebook friends tend to have larger orbital prefrontal cortexes, the area responsible for social behaviour and emotion. More Facebook friends means more time spent online, which has potent effects on the secretion of hormones, which accounts for its addictive nature.
It’s no secret Facebook and other social network, even overall internet addictions are rewiring our brains. The ability of the brain to change whilst learning is called neuroplasticity. Areas which are infrequently used atrophy and new neural pathways and synapses are formed and deepened with other more frequent activity.
The question we need to ask is simply; when it comes to thinking about the next generation of the workforce: Is work exciting enough to focus the attention of employees?
Internet usage and social media result in constant mini bursts as multiple tasks are completed simultaneously as well as processing much information in multiple formats. For example, a typical twenty year old is on facebook, youtube, gmail and news and other content sites all at the same time. Rapidly engaging in little communication volleys. If you need further convincing about this dopaminergic power simply observe the symptoms of over dependance. One social network is not enough, many have Facebook, Whats app, BB messenger, Viber, Skype and Twitter. This would seem a highly inefficient use of resources, there should be saturation at some point, but in fact every new network brings an increased chance of interaction (a message, a beep, a poke, an image) resulting in an increased hit of dopamine.
So long as the critical mass of people can be reached within a set time with each new network, there will still be room to grow. VC’s bank on it. Nowadays when you meet someone you consider adding them to at least 2 if not 3 social networks; Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. If you can get a majority of your friends to use the same network around the same time as you, then the cost of adding another network or switching is greatly reduced. Think about the last few movies you saw. Chances are one of the characters mentioned Twitter. That isn’t really hip and cool and oh so now script writing, that’s product placement to get everyone on board. And what better validation that your new tech toy is really worth the investment than seeing it enshrined in the pillars of popular culture, music, tv and film? Hasn’t almost every movie you ever watched had an Apple computer in it, rather than a Dell or a Sony?
And the media wants you to continue this social addiction because when people connect so does content. The more interactive you can make the network, the more content can be shared on it which means more media needs to be produced, and so on.
The new generation is not opening a link and reading the full article. They are actioning it. They favourite it, tag it, copy a paragraph and paste it, share it here, share it there, bookmark it, evernote it etc. All these actions on one piece of content. Enhancing their profile, benefiting others, keeping an archive. And to what end? Why is the reward greater when you post a link to an article on a friends wall, than when you simply read the article and feel the words stimulating a debate in your brain?
Simply because as we’ve seen, internet addiction reduces one’s capacity in dealing with other sensory information. We are not used to reading long form anymore. We have trained our brain to consume short status update length messages and to be constantly interrupted with incoming messages and to link out to other pieces of content in the original article. We can’t focus on the message for that long to be able to make sense of it. We understand what a poke means, even though no one knows what it actually is, more than we can understand the opinion of an author of a column in The Times newspaper - because the former a) can be grasped in a fraction of a second and b) let’s you interact with it, giving some sort of meaning to the whole episode. Quick shot in, blast of dopamine out. And the cycle continues.
How do we expect these new rewired brains to work in an environment which entails focusing on fewer tasks and for a longer period, which may restrict them to one location, which may remove or reduce other social interactions which they are used to? At an extreme form, these recruits would behave like heroin withdrawal patients.
My suggestion is that we need not fear this “phenomena” as it is so often referred to, making it sound less palatable and something to be managed. The fact is the new generation don’t value the same things, they don’t form one dimensional groups or set of allegiances, and they lack the focus required.
Does that mean they are now morally corrupt? Not at all, they are more connected, more interactive (albeit in forms we don’t recognise), better curators, better at adapting and rewiring, more cohesive etc. All signs of strong communities.
I believe that the next generation of economies need to change to absorb the new talent. These characteristics are perfect for innovating, effecting change, increasing social welfare, balance, and to solve science’s pressing problems. We saw a glimpse of what this might mean for the future of money when Bitcoin was released.
In this region we’re going to have to work incredibly hard, especially in the private sector to provide the right incentives for people to become employees, part of that will be understanding how to replace that dopamine effect with smaller, more frequent, rewarding social experiences at the workplace. But there already is a solution for that. Creating a job can be better than getting one. Entrepreneurship might be the right answer to this problem.