Is Social Media the Fast Food Version of Communication?

McDonald's logo, fast food

In 1963, Ray Kroc — the man who turned McDonald’s into a franchise empire — appeared on TV to proudly serve up the legendary fast food joint’s one billionth burger. By the time he died 21 years later, just 10 months short of the sale of his 50 billionth burger, he and his company had forever changed the way we eat by making fast food a part of our daily lives.

Last month, another behemoth company celebrated a similar milestone. Facebook turned 10. In its first decade, the social network amassed 1.23 billion monthly users, the equivalent of one sixth of the world’s population. During that time, those users have made more than 201 billion friend connections and have liked things an estimated 3.4 trillion times.

Numbers like these boggle the mind and are just one indication of the fundamental shift that social media has brought about in terms of how people interact and share information. Just as the Big Mac and other fast foods forever changed how and what we eat — and sadly not for the better — Facebook and other social media channels are redefining how and what we communicate with potentially equally negative consequences.

Down the Path of the Golden Arches

Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has become a popular distraction for some and a bonafide time waster for many, with Americans spending more time on Facebook than any other US website. In fact, according to a Facebook, the average user spends 17 minutes a day on it. That may not sound like much, but over the course of a month it adds up to more than eight hours. Similar to how fast food became habit forming (as addictive as heroine some reports note), social media sites like Facebook appear to have grown into something that we crave just as much if not more.

No matter whether you’re addicted, in a 12-step recovery program, or among those who have managed to abstain altogether, we are all impacted by the behaviors that companies like McDonald’s and Facebook encourage in our society. In Mickey D’s case, that has meant coming to value convenience, low cost, and potentially taste, over nutrition, with enormous consequences for the health of people around the world. For Facebook and other social media channels, by contrast, it has meant fundamentally shifting, arguably even dumbing down, how we communicate.

Other social media channels are, of course, guilty too. We’ve seen sentences communicating complete thoughts devolve into esoteric sound bites laced with a dizzying array of fragments and acronyms. We’ve watched emoticons replace words as a tool for expressing feelings. Perhaps most importantly, we are witnessing how social media is helping to foster a society that values frequent communication more than meaningful communication. That phenomenon is what has helped Justin Bieber, with his more than to collect more Twitter followers (50 million) than Barack Obama (41 million).

We are now also communicating different types of information that are often are far more personal in nature. We freely like or dislike anything and everything, provide an array of details and images from our private lives, and over share information that was once unthinkable for public consumption.

Who Wants Fries with That?

The net impact of these changes remains to be seen. At a minimum, they are heralding a major shift for how communicators and content marketers develop their strategies. For example, today our communications need to be shorter and more frequent, since people increasingly value quick hits that allow them to glean important information and then move on. Similarly, our communications need to be far more visual to capture our shrinking attention spans, a reality that is playing itself out in the form of infographics, viral videos, and picture-oriented social media sites such as Instagram. Our content also needs to be more personal to appeal to a new generation that has come to expect access to more intimate information.

These aren’t necessarily bad things and in fact some of them are actually quite good. But then again, I’m sure back in 1963 no one really thought about the implications that a hamburger chain would have on the health of a nation. As social media continues to alter our communication, the long-term implications, particularly for those young enough to never have known anything different, could be significant. Maybe as with fast food, the solution lies in moderation.

So, the next time you’re at McDonald’s, consider passing on the fries. And, the next time you’re on favorite social site, think about paying a bit more attention to what you’re communicating and how.

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