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Sharing Posts on Social Media Might be Hindering Our Comprehension of Them, Study Finds

Illustration by Joe Magee (via The Guardian)
Why do we share content on Facebook and Twitter? Because we want other people to read it? Ostensibly, yes, but under the surface, on some level, we're getting gratification from the fact that it came from us. It's like when you recommend somebody an album, or lend them a book, you had absolutely no part in the recording of the album, or the writing of the book, but when the other person likes it, you take a certain amount of pride from that.

Alan Watts once said this of his work, as an entertainer - " I just want you to enjoy a point of view that I enjoy". As a creator, the appeal of that is obvious, but if you're just signal boosting the content, rather than creating it, it takes on a different form. Of course, with literature, film, music and all the other things we pass around through recommendation, the desire to recommend is secondary to your own enjoyment, you don't sit down and put a film on purely because you're figuring out who you can pass it on to, that comes later.

With social media sharing though, that mindset not only arrives earlier, but as a recent study has found, it actually reconstructs the way we comprehend the information on offer, and not in a good way. You see, there's a difference between recommending something to a specific person and sharing en masse, since you aren't looking to reach out to anyone specific, just anyone who might be interested.

It's like being that person at a crowded party who takes over the music control, puts on a track they really like, and then stands there surveying the room to see who picks up on the vibe. I think we all know at least one of those, and recognise the fallacy - how can you enjoy the music if you're so fixated on making sure that other people do, and that you're the reason they came into contact with it?

Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University (via instituteofpalebluedots.com)
The study in question, conducted by Peking University in Beijing and Cornell University in Ithaca, NY took a sample of Weibo users and split them into two groups. Each group read 40 posts on the same subject, one group had the option to repost them, the other did not. The groups were then given tests to see how well they had comprehended the content, and the reposting group didn't fare as well, exhibiting a lack of understanding about what they'd shared.

The paper, entitled 'Does Micro-Blogging Make Us Shallow?', concluded that because sharing often necessitates a quick response, people aren't necessarily taking the time to properly process the content in front of them. Such findings lend credence to the idea that social media scrolling before or during a work period could well be detrimental, since it sends your brain into a state of hopping back and forth between absorbing information and considering whether or not to redirect it.

This doesn't necessarily mean that sharing is a bad thing, far from it, but the way people interact with information ultimately guides the way information is presented. Why do you think 'listicle' happy sites like BuzzFeed have become so successful? The information is easy to absorb quickly and the appeal is broad, which are the two factors that give content the best chance of being shared widely. The downside to that is that such content is, by its very nature, shallow. In-depth content does get shared, but it's far more likely to get skimmed by most people than read in full, and it's that kind of thinking which gave rise to terms like TL:DR (Too Long; Didn't Read).

If you ask me, what this really comes down to isn't so much less sharing, as rethinking the way we share. I have a rule, if I share an article on my Facebook (that I didn't write), I have to have read it at least twice, and usually I'll make sure to write a few sentences about my own take on it above, as a further way to encourage discussion, because that should really be the aim, shouldn't it? Pulling in a crop of likes is fine, but the best content gets people talking, and once a healthy discussion emerges, the identity of the original sharer becomes more or less irrelevant, which is probably why healthy discussion is so rare on Facebook.

We live in a world where information is free and incomprehensibly plentiful, and yet so many of us pander to those who care more about us sharing it than actually engaging with it, and that really needs to stop. So much of online culture is built on a structure of accumulation - hits, redirection, ad revenue, SEO. There's no getting away from that stuff, but for more legitimate content to rise to the surface, examples need to be set.



Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @Songbird_Callum


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Sharing Posts on Social Media Might be Hindering Our Comprehension of Them, Study Finds Reviewed by Callum Davies on Monday, April 04, 2016 Rating: 5

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