Chronic social-media users may not require rehab, but are hooked

Feet tap an irregular rhythm. Fingers are swollen and twitchy and scratch up and down arms, desperate to placate an itch that is proving insatiable. And the look. The look on the face says it all.

"I have to tweet this."


While social media has been around for years, the intersection of ubiquitous outlets for micro-posts and the explosion of portable computers and smartphones has recently created a new breed: The Update Addict.

OK, so maybe frequent Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Orkut and LinkedIn updaters aren't quite addicts in the traditional "cook heroin in a spoon and inject it between the toes" sort of way, but they're addicts nonetheless.

They have their habit and, by God, they need to feed it.

"I kind of figured that I had a problem when I was in San Francisco for a marathon," said Anne Zike (Facebook). "I don't have one of those fancy smartphones, so I was constantly borrowing my hotel roommate's iPhone so I could update Facebook."

It starts off so innocently. You're just reconnecting with friends or networking or playing this "Farm Town" game that everybody's talking about and suddenly " you're hooked.

"You know it's bad when you start thinking about events in your life in the form of Facebook updates," Zike said.

For her, a former stay-at-home mom, Facebook was all about re-entering the flow of life. She wasn't sheltered, but the schedule of feedings and naps can shackle anyone to her house. When she was introduced to social media, it was more about keeping tabs on what all the other moms were doing.

"You know, you put the kids down for a nap, but you can't go anywhere, so Facebook lets you chat quietly and keep up with everybody," she said. "Nowadays, I still chat, but mostly my friends use it for scheduling a night with the girls " it's more about the social, less about the media."

For social media experts, like Sam Sims (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), the media part is the message. Or maybe the message is the conversation.

"People who don't understand social media think it's all about shouting into a void," he said. "The truth is, social media is about having a conversation."

Sims, an account director for Jones Public Relations, said that social media is like a party. You don't just walk into the center of a group of people talking and start yelling about yourself. (If you do, you aren't invited to many parties.)

"I can see how some people might think I'm 'addicted,' because I do update a lot," he said. "But that's because I'm talking with people."

Sims said his output (about eight "tweets" a day) may seem like more to some people because they're
seeing the same message replicated throughout his social media accounts. What goes up on Twitter finds its way to Facebook, and so on and so forth. He is working smarter, not harder, he said.

Of course, it can't all be work, or your messages won't find an audience, said Ryan Parrott (Twitter, Facebook), head chef at Iguana Mexican Grill. If all you're doing is selling, nobody will be buying.

"What I've figured out, what social media gives me, rather than a voice, is ears. I use Twitter, mostly, to see what other people are saying and doing," he said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't use it to check on the customer experience at Iguana " that's just good business.

"But I also pay attention to hot topics and to create connections. I think that's what a lot of people using social media for businesses are missing " they think it's all about putting out the message and not receiving it."

When somebody asks a question online, there's a better than average chance it won't be answered. That's just rude, Parrott said.

"If somebody asks me something, Twitter etiquette says you try to answer," he said. "That's how you build a community. That's how you make friends."

It might take a while for him to answer, of course. Parrott's output has a lot to do with the way he works. Unlike many addicts who are tethered to desks and computers, his job prevents him from checking and updating his accounts. It's hard to tweet about anything when you're knee-deep in orders, he said.

That said, when he's not in the kitchen, he's in constant contact " replying to friends, checking up on new events and playing a new kind of game called Gowalla.

"It's like what Twitter used to be," he said. "When that started up, it was all 'I am at the bakery' or 'I am flying a kite.' Now people use it more to communicate, so Gowalla comes along and picks up that crowd."

Gowalla uses a phone's GPS function to "check in" at different spots around town. Digital artifacts are left and retrieved at about 160 spots around Oklahoma City. 

"The cool thing is, you actually have to be there for it to register," Parrott said. "I think it'll get big. I mostly use it as a friendly competition with friends, but it also shows people what my day looks like, and I really get around."

Kristy K. Boone (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) said she uses social media not to let others know where she is, but to find out where to go.

"It's an enhancer," she said. "My life revolves around networking and community involvement, and social media makes that possible."

Without Twitter, she wouldn't have found out about Taco Tuesdays at Iguana when she did. Without social media, she wouldn't have known about the shootings at Fort Hood or the Balloon Boy hoax so soon.

"Even better, Café Evoke had their trailer stolen a month or so ago and tweeted for help," Boone said. "Just the other day, somebody saw their van in the parking lot and asked if they'd ever found the trailer. You put a message out there and people will pay attention."

But good social media addicts have to listen to their fellow addicts and to their own bodies, which is why Boone decided to take a break from updating.

"About two months ago, I took a weekend off. Just stopped checking, stopped updating altogether," she said. "And I realized "¦ my arm hurt. I had been on the phone so much, tweeting so many times, that my arm ached. That's a good sign you're doing too much."

But sometimes it takes an intervention to realize you're an addict, said Jim Quillen (Twitter, Facebook, blog). In his case, it was his wife.

"We tell our kids to put away the PSP during dinner. It's just one of the rules. Just because I'm a parent doesn't mean I get around the rules. My wife tells me to put away my Blackberry, and I obey," he said. "Recently, I was 'busted' by the moderator at a marketing conference for making live Twitter posts while sitting at the front of the room as a panelist."

The moderator was more lenient than his better half, however. Taking his cue, some of the folks in the audience picked up his slack.

"I joke about being addicted, but I still like being around people more than I like reading about their lives," Zike said. "Facebook, for me, is an OK substitute when I can't get the real thing. But I'd always rather use it to set up the next time I'll see a friend. I can't imagine that will ever replace the real thing."

Sims said he's found that social media put him in a better place to have friends.

"You learn about people's interests and find that you have something in common," he said. "In fact, there are people I go running with that I never would have gotten together with if it hadn't been for Twitter."

Still, in a world where many people have cell phones for making calls and computers just for e-mail, social media can be a tricky balancing act, Sims said. It used to be strictly verboten to use your phone in front of clients or friends and he still gets odd looks every once in a while, but when he explains what he's doing " taking notes on what they're talking about " everybody is cool.

"You know, people tweet from meetings or some conferences or even rock concerts," he said. "And that's fine, so long as you remember the main rule of social media: The person in front of you is always more important than the people on your phone.

"Live your life. Enjoy what's happening and don't worry about documenting it," he said. "When you lose sight of that, it's time to put the phone away."

Have you ever wondered which "Simpsons" character your friend Denise is? Or how long Jake would survive the zombie apocalypse? What about which Old Testament prophet your mom is?

No? Well, too bad. Facebook (and your "friends") want you to know. And they don't care if it crowds out all the other relevant information you go to the site to receive.

And what about the 140-character updates on Twitter? What was a minor distraction from your day can easily become a nuisance when you suddenly receive 20 updates in a row from a particularly zealous communicator.

That is, perhaps, the most frustrating part of social media: making sure you're getting the information you want, without being buried by the deluge of crap you don't. The key is customization.

Twitter is harder to customize, but the interface is much simpler: You either receive tweets or you don't. If you want to avoid the updates you don't care about, stop following the person and instead visit his or her Twitter page to scan it for relevant information. Alternately, if it's a specific topic you're interested in, you can search Twitter and hope the results give you what you want.

Facebook has more options, but also more distractions that beg to be silenced. If all of your friends have discovered the same quiz on the same day, you can tell Facebook that you don't want to receive updates about a certain quiz. Ditto for news from "Mafia Wars" or "Farm Town" " if you couldn't care less about who bought a goat or who got revenge for Fat Tommy's death, you can shut them out.

If you don't want to un-friend somebody, you can stay connected to them and just silence their updates. Trickier still, you can make lists of people who can see certain updates. That way you can be friends with your grandparents or your boss and still let those who you deem safe know just how wasted you got last weekend.

Still, if the entire endeavor becomes too taxing for what started out as a leisure activity, there's one more option: Stop posting, stop checking and stop caring. It's easier than you think. "P.J. Fry