Getting dismally sick over the holidays had an upside. An incredibly geeky upside, the sort only someone doing research about social media could care about, perhaps. But it was a good occasion to test a hypothesis.

A lot of social media observers look at 2009 as the year that social media crashed into the pop culture mainstream. When a significant portion of the population use a technology for both personal and work purposes, we've reached a significant landmark in its adoption. When people regularly use a new technology to inform both B2C and B2B buying decisions, we've also reached some significant point in the history of advanced capitalism.

But how deeply have social media changed the way we live? Or, to put it another way, have social media become a social fact?

If you're not familiar with the term social fact, it's one of the oldest concepts in the history of the social sciences. Way back around the turn of the 20th century, Emile Durkheim proposed a way of separating psychology from sociology: the former examines how individuals thought and behaved; the latter looks into the forces external to them that shaped their lives.

The best example of a social fact is the Christmas holiday in the US. There's no escaping it, even if you wanted to. Unless you're an adherent of a faith that explicitly does not celebrate Christmas, you will spend the month of December meeting the responsibilities of a second job (all the Christmas-related tasks, from wrapping presents to making special meals), re-visiting the way you relate to other people (how you greet them, who gets presents, etc.), spending more money than normal, and mentally and emotionally preparing for the great crescendo near the end of the month. Christmas is such a powerful social fact that people worry what would happen if they ever tried to ignore it.

If Christmas in the United States is the social fact against which all others are measured, have social media reached the point where you cannot ignore them? Even if social media were 1/1,000th of a Christmas-level social fact, they might slip back into your life even if you tried to push them away.

My time stewing in my own bodily fluids is certainly not the critical test of this hypothesis, but it was interesting to see what happened as a result of being disconnected from social media for several days, except for a quick update on Facebook. Otherwise, no blog posts, podcasts, Twitter traffic, LinkedIn invites, or forum discussions.

Here's what happened:

  • People did notice my absence. Certainly, if you're a regular participant in social media, people notice your absence. That's not exactly the same as shutting off your e-mail, which gets people angry at you for not responding to their messages.
  • I lost track of discussions. I'm a regular reader and poster on some discussion boards. After a week away, I couldn't quite keep up with some conversations. Later, I realized that I had missed some altogether.
  • I spent time catching up. There's enough value in social media that I felt obliged to devote some extra time to reading content that I had missed, and writing content that I might have posted (such as this blog entry).
  • I cut back on some activities. It was probably a good time to prune my RSS feeds, or take a second look at how often I really needed to take a peek at Facebook.
  • I felt guilty. The parallel to Christmas here is obvious. People would forgive you if, for personal reasons, you needed to take a break from Christmas. Unfortunately, you'd probably feel bad anyway.Similarly, I felt as though I had done something mildly wrong, even if I couldn't articulate exactly what it was.

This evidence is hardly conclusive, particularly since I disconnected from the social media channels for just a few days. Still, I did feel the mild force of something "external to the individual…with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which, whether he wishes it or not, they impose themselves upon him." (Which, coincidentally, is also a good description of the flu.)

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]