March 25, 2024

FOMO is keeping social media alive

How much would you need to be paid to delete TikTok?

If you’re like the average college student, the answer is $59. To get them to deactivate their Instagram account, you’d have to pony up $47. (According to a recent University of Chicago report.)

On its face, this makes sense. As I’ve learned from personal experience and from talking to my own class of college students, there’s some real value we get out of these tools. We might learn something, laugh at something funny, or simply enjoy looking at pretty people and places.

But most of all, we see value in these platforms because everybody else is on them too. This phenomenon is known as the network effect – the more connections we have in a network, the more value we get out of it. If all your pals are on Instagram, you’ll see what your friends are doing this weekend, and you’ll have a venue to post your own life updates.

What happens when we remove the network, though? Things change, and drastically.

When those same students are offered the chance to deactivate TikTok and Instagram for themselves and their friends, the results completely flip. Instead of paying the students, they would happily pay you an average of $28 and $10 to rid their network of TikTok and Instagram, respectively.

This is striking. The average college student would pay you money to get all their friends to delete the most popular social apps on the market.

The researchers behind this 2023 study, Leonardo Bursztyn, Benjamin Handel, Rafael Jiménez-Durán, and Christopher Roth, call this a “collective trap.” They write:

This data indicates that the fear of missing out [FOMO] is the most prevalent motive for both TikTok and Instagram… Our estimates thus far highlight the possibility of product market traps on social media, where consumers are trapped in an inefficient equilibrium and have a preference for the product not to exist.

Their study shows that 64% of TikTok users and 48% of Instagram users experience negative welfare effects from the products’ existence. Taken together, a majority of students feel worse off because of these tools.

Nearly twenty years into the social media era, it’s incredible to see how much these tools have shaped our lives and our communities. I find it difficult to explain to my students just how cool Facebook was in the late 2000s, just how much it once felt like these products supported and expanded our social lives instead of ruthlessly controlling them. And I don’t see how this current path is sustainable.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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