Earlier this week a survey story about how social networks cost companies £1.4 billion/year in lost hours hit the headlines. The Mirror wrote "Twitter is a time waster", the FT chimed in with "Twittering workers waste £1.4bn" and Forbes perked up with "the cost of tweets and pokes." Fortunately, I suspect most people who heard about the story through social networks are also likely to have read the excellent debunking articles by Mike Butcher at TechCrunch and Charles Arthur at the Guardian.
Since the invention of social networks, and their subsequent shock! horror! highlighting of human nature (people like to chat, no matter the medium) there's been a rash of stories about the waste they allegedly cause. The BBC reported in 2007 that social networking sites were costing up to £133 million a day, a preposterous figure of £47 billion a year. That story prompted a minor backlash in the States, with posts from Warner Bros. VP of Technology Ethan Kaplan and Robert Scoble criticising any company that can't get constructive with social networks.
Commercial companies aren't the only bodies concerned with the activities of their staff. Kent County Council banned social networking sites in 2007 in an effort to reduce time wasting among its 32,000 employees. Portsmouth City Council also banned its 4,500 staff from accessing Facebook, even though it was shown that each employee was only spending 5 or 6 minutes a month on the site. It turned out to be a group of around 50 employees racking up hours on Facebook every day.
Strangely, the same news sites that covered these unquestionably negative angles also post a decent number of "good news" stories about use of social networks. A BBC report from New York showed that small businesses have been able to bring in customers and combat the recession through the effective use of sites like Twitter and Facebook. Another article, also from the BBC, reports that colleges are reducing student drop out rates through communication with students online.
This weird, contradictory coverage does in some way represent a truth about social media sites: they can be extremely useful in making contacts (and money), but they can also be distracting when you're trying to complete a single task that requires your full attention. Still, you don't have to be a genius to figure out that taking away the social network won't solve the underlying problem. Procrastination wasn't invented with the computer.
A few stories facilitated by social networks:
Telegraph correspondents used Facebook to contact Rudy Guede, the murderer of Meredith Kercher, after he fled to Germany.
Pick up a newspaper and you'll likely encounter stories quoting Twitter streams from notable individuals. See: Ben Bradshaw says BBC biased, Hugh Jackman Twitter gaffe, Mark Cuban fined by NBA, Miley Cyrus quits Twitter, etc.
Got any more? Add them in the comments.