Are Facebook and Twitter Users Really More Productive?

By Craig Buckler
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private surfingThis story appeared everywhere last week (and it was not an April Fool!) A study carried out at the University of Melbourne discovered that people using the web for personal surfing get more work done than those who do not. The study was carried out by Dr Brent Coker:

People who do surf the internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t.

Dr Coker states that most projects, such as writing a report, consist of mini-tasks e.g. gathering information, entering data, creating a graph, etc. Workers were shown to take small web-surfing “treats” between these mini-tasks. That enabled the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration and increased productivity.

I’m sure this news was printed and put under the nose of bosses all round the world!

Correlation does not imply causation

Details about this research have not yet been published, but I suspect the results are statistically flawed. It is certainly difficult to accurately measure productivity, but the following points should also be noted.

1. Work breaks are not a new phenomenon
The internet has not introduced slacking: there are any number of ways to take unauthorised breaks. Those without Internet access can indulge in cigarette smoking, extra-long toilet breaks, chatting by the water cooler, leisurely coffee making, day-dreaming, staring at the moderately attractive person in the next cubicle, wandering around the office with a file, or any other way to interrupt the tedium of their job.

2. The web improves technical ability
Using the web helps technical literacy. Even if someone just learns to use their browser more effectively, it will ultimately help them become more productive.

Workers who do not surf the web are more likely to be IT novices or have little interest in computing. It may not be surprising this group achieves less in their working day.

3. The detrimental effects of blocking the internet
The study compared the productivity of workers with restricted and unrestricted net access. Those with restricted access may not be able to:

  1. access genuinely useful work-related resources
  2. perform personal tasks such as banking or shopping – they may need to leave work earlier to carry out those duties, or
  3. satisfy their web cravings (the study reported that 14% of workers showed signs of Internet addiction).

Perhaps the biggest issue is trust. Companies that heavily monitor or restrict internet usage and other activities display an inherent mistrust of their staff. Could that be a significant contributing factor to lower productivity?

Stating that Facebook and Twitter users are better workers is far too simplistic. Unrestricted internet access can be a privilege and companies have a right to check that it is not abused. However, ensuring workers achieve their goals is possibly handled better by agreed targets and line manager observation than draconian technology filters.

Has Facebook made you work harder? Are you serious?!

Is the Internet restricted or monitored at your workplace? Does that help or hinder productivity?

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  • Belfast75

    As far as I can see the net productivity is a decrease.

    within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t.

    So if you lose 20% of your day to twitter you increase your productivity by 9%. Surely that is a net lose of 11%.

  • @Belfast7
    Nice observation! Although the study is actually claiming that 20% personal surfing makes you 9% more productive than 0% personal surfing.

  • It must also depend on how the social sites are used, I use Twitter to recieve info form various sources; I have Twitterfox installed and find this method very productive. I know many who waste a lot of time looking through forums ;-) like all tools social media can be used in different ways; some of which may be less productive than others…

  • Travis

    I don’t think you can make a direct correlation in terms of time spent as “wasted”. Example:

    A person spends 10% of time on Twitter in a work day.
    That person recieves a 9% boost in productivity, effectively resulting in a 1% loss, but what about the extra 8% – 10% of time saved by asking a question and recieving a quick response, instead of spending an hour looking up the answer.

    The power of Twitter as a productivity tool lies ultimately in the size and scope of a user’s personal network, and the effect that network can have on the user, in bringing new technologies, methods, etc to that person’s attention.

  • hog wash!

    Hog wash!

  • mh0825

    Belfast75 –

    While mathematically what you’re saying makes sense, it’s not what the argument is saying. It’s saying that if less than 20% of the time is used surfing the web, that the productivity rate is 9% higher than if no web surfing went on at all. So without web surfing they would be working 20% more and still have 9% less productivity. Hope that makes sense.

  • We surely see some changes in work desk behavior.

    But as you have pointed out, taking breaks is not a new experience. Whether people have a chat in front of the building smoking a cigarette (yes, some people still do) or have a chat sitting in front of their computer doesn’t make a difference in productivity.

    But productivity might (positively) change for people using the internet and social media sites to research. Nevertheless there is only a small line between professional and thus more productive use and personal use.


  • Stacy

    It’s true that breaks are not a new phenomenon, but leisurely work breaks are almost unheard of.

    There are not many work places who would allow you to go out and have a cigarette every time you felt stressed, or needed a brain break. Often times those breaks are scheduled, and timed.

    According to the article, you can regain concentration and increase productivity by taking many small internet breaks (as long as the breaks equate to less than 20% of your work day).

  • kit

    Just as a hypothesis, it’s possible that interacting with others online is more efficient than standing up and interacting with others around the office, in the break room, etc, while still accomplishing the needed break in concentration. I believe this to be true for a couple of reasons:

    1) Less transit time to and from your workspace. It’s just a window click away.
    2) Related to #1, you are immediately available to stop your activity and respond to an email or call, something you cannot do away from your workstation.
    3) It is easier to disengage from a computer-based activity on a moment’s notice. If you were chatting someone up in the break room, social niceties dictate a more prolonged and delicate exit from conversation.

  • Productivity can be increased simply by changing your thoughts and what you focus on. These websites and services (and smokeo, coffee break etc.) change and/or interrupt your focus. We need, as people, to learn how to change our focus and thoughts on our own.

  • I think if used appropriately browsing the internet (which I would put Twitter and Facebook under that description) can increase productivity, they can relax your brain and help you focus on what your doing, rather than trudging aimlessly through “work”. Although a general statement like that can be seriously misused and abused.

  • In my opinion… there is no answer to it.

    People here have mentioned already that there is more then one use to these social networks. There are some people who use it for information and an alternative to the typical search engine. However there are times where people use these social networks as a means of escape. This is what my old roommate did. It took time from his homework, and his actual job. So in a way it is both yes and no and clearly it depends on the individual as well.

  • While I think this study is important, we need more research like it to be able to use it for anything. An important aspect of science is to redo tests in independent settings and with various setups.

    The published results also don’t actually say that “Facebook and Twitter usage are beneficial”, which most media seem to report. It is Internet use “in general”, or rather the breaks that it offers, which is what causes the alleged increase in productivity. That subjects happened to use YouYube or Facebook etc is only normal since that’s what the majority of casual surfers tend to do IMHO.

  • I’ve got to say, there are some days that I don’t take a break at all and I feel like I didn’t get as far as I wanted. On the days that I take a few 10-15 minute breaks, usually AWAY from the computer, I am very productive. Since I work on so many things in a day I think the longer I sit at the computer, the easier it is for me to get too many things going. A little break is a nice “reset” for my head and allows me to get back to work refreshed and with a clear head. As far as using that time for twitter and facebook, I’m not sure, but I can say that breaks throughout the day help my head! :)

  • John

    Twitter is an extremely profitable way to market to your audience , if you haven’t realized the massive positive effect it can have, then check this site out Twitter Traffic Exposed and you will see the amazing results.

  • It would be interesting to hear some thoughts from employers on this study. While work-breaks (lunch, coffee, etc) are an opportunity to recharge and preferably leave the work area for a short time, as I read it, this study seems to suggest workers are “snacking” on social network and shopping sites through out the day. If it boosts productivity though it can’t be all bad :)

  • Tim

    So if you lose 20% of your day to twitter you increase your productivity by 9%. Surely that is a net lose of 11%.

    This is mathematically incorrect. The two percentages cannot be added together because they are measuring two different things. The stats should be interpreted as:

    If you use twitter/facebook etc during your day, you can achieve the equivalent of 9% more productivity in the remaining 80% of the day than you could if you used 100% of your day for work. eg. your work measure/productivity is 109%. It’s a massive net gain, not a net loss

    ie. You took 80% of your day to be 109% productive as opposed to 100% of your day to be 100% productive.

    Over a 10hr day, your boss could send you home 2hrs early, save himself the equivalent of 2.9hrs wages to get the same amount of work out of you!

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  • How do you measure productivity anyway? How do you factor in the fact that one person may be able to do the same task in a fraction of the time as another?

    I think quite a lot of collude in this collective lie that we’re all highly productive most of the time, when in fact we’re not, nor should we expect ourselves to be; we’re not machines. I reckon if you get 3 or 4 solid, productive hours out of a working day, then you’re doing well.

  • Debiprasad

    A simple example: If any one does not spend time on surfing she writes 100 lines of code in a day. If she spends 20% her time on surfing, she writes 109 lines of code in her 80% of time. Now you decide: a gain or loss? :P

  • @Debiprasad
    I wish it were as simple as that. There is no easy way to measure productivity and lines of code is possibly the worst! It’ll be interesting to see how they calculated the 9% increase.

  • Robert