Guest AuthorPavan Soni

‘The Facebook Effect’ on Creativity

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist 

Four days back I joined Facebook. Now this is a glaring case of being a super laggard, isn’t it. So far I have found the going good, and more importantly busy, however, what caught my imagination is the impact of Facebook on creativity. If the social network is one of the largest in the world, and if creativity is the most important aspect that distinguishes us humans from any other species of the nature, then we have a issue at hand. Though creativity is our signature strength, yet it remains one of the most grossly underutilized one. What impact then social networks, such as Facebook, have on individual’s creativity. Before I venture any further, defining creativity is in order. 
Teresa Amabile, the famous researcher from Harvard Business School, defines creativity as “an ability to produce ideas which are novel and useful.” So, to paraphrase the question- I am keen to explore what impact Facebook has on one’s ability to generate novel and useful ideas.
For the sake of brevity, I  have identified key dimensions of the Social Network that influences creativity in positive or negative manners.
Ways in which Facebook enhances creativity
  • Greater diversity: Research suggests that diversity gives rise to far greater connections and in turn, great many ideas (The Medici Effect). Since Facebook helps to get connected to a far greater and, hopefully, diverse audience, the platform has the ability to expose you to a more diverse setting, and in turn, foster newer links. You must, however, observe that having a wider network doesn’t necessary means having a diverse network, for even large networks can have several redundant ties that lead to same information or knowledge continuing to circulate. 
  • Greater speed of access: Since creativity is increasingly becoming a group phenomena, it is always good to know who others are working on ideas similar to that of yours and hence possibly partner, if not avoid duplication. So now, instead of discovering very late in the game that there exist a better ‘mouse trap’, you can now increase your odds of success by seeking external validation early in the game. That’s how Google Patent Search helps inventors. 
  • Greater reach: Not just that social networks allow you to explore and validate, such avenues can also be great sources of raising funds, resources and complementary capabilities that can assist you with working on your ideas. A wider reach now means that you don’t have to be tied down to the endowments in your immediate environment. Think of a village girl having a great new dish and she want sell it to a urban hotel. Now it’s possible. But the real question is- does the network enable her to come up with a great recipe at the first place? 
If done well, your network can offer you some amazing chances of getting fresh ideas and seeing them through. However, there is a dark side of such networks also that can perhaps hamper such abilities.
Ways in which Facebook curtails creativity
  • Shrinking attention span: There is sufficient historical evidence that great ideas often need a significant gestation period for them to take shape, or as Steve Johnson calls ‘slow hunch’. What Facebook has done is made us into an army of superficial readers and learners, where the eagerness to move to the next is far greater than to soak into the meaningful. (I am trying hard to avoid that trap). What does that mean? While with a massive reach and wider network you might come across good ideas, you won’t be able to hold on to those for long enough to have any meaningful outcome.  
  • Growing social sanctions: Anonymity breeds creativity, and that’s perhaps one reason why superheroes wear masks. The odds of you coming up with a radical idea and taking it all the way is all the more higher when you are not being judged, and have nothing to lose, especially in terms of your social capital. Now what happens on Facebook is that you are increasingly tied to a denser network (that’s how Facebook works), and hence for any erratic behavior there is a massive social sanctioning. If the primary intent is to seek “likes”, why would you risk doing anything radical, which has a greater probability of failure? You would rather play it safe. Your ideas would best be ‘incremental’. 
Well, one can argue that Facebook is not meant to enhance creativity, but I would confer that if the largest online network can’t influence the need of the hour, we are grossly off target! 
Hence, how you use your network has to be thought through. It has to make your a better individual, at the least, or else it’s a collective step backwards.
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