Unless you happen to be a social media manager, you may feel guilty browsing through your social media feed in the workplace. Fortunately, new research suggests that browsing social media can come with work-related benefits, at least when done in moderation.

Social Media at Work Gets a Bad Rap

Using some kinds of social media is clearly beneficial to your work life. For example, keeping your profile up to date and connecting with your work contacts on professional social media platforms like LinkedIn are pretty much must-dos for a successful career in today's business world. However, casual and aimless browsing of your social media feed at work doesn't seem like peak productivity. It is considered loafing by many and therefore banned or regulated in many companies.

But browsing social media at work may not deserve its bad reputation. Recent research suggests that people who more regularly skim or read work-related social media content learn about innovations in their field sooner and discover where to get information that will help them master job tasks. This is also true for Twitter (now named X) users. Even though people typically said that they used Twitter primarily for entertainment and only secondarily for staying informed, Twitter users were still more up-to-date about developments in their field than nonusers.

So, despite its reputation for being a waste of time (at best), browsing social media seems useful. People pick up information on social media that they would not have known otherwise, and this information may be an asset at work.

Social Media Helps People Identify Experts

Although people can learn all sorts of things on social media, my colleagues and I thought that one especially useful skill that social media users learn is how to figure out who is an expert. In the "real world," identifying experts in one's network is as crucial for getting helpful and relevant information as it is time-consuming. It is also typically limited to people who are close to us. For example, imagine that your startup needs reliable information on international data protection laws. An old friend from high school that you have lost touch with might just be the right person to ask because she happens to work in that area. But without knowing where to look, you may have to talk to a lot of people until eventually, one of them might point you to a person that has the relevant information.

The rise of social media has dramatically accelerated our quest for experts. People now have access to information shared by experts around the globe, even if they don't know them personally. Coming back to the example above, your friend may have shared experiences about her job in international law on social media. However, to take advantage of these ready connections to experts, people must be able to efficiently make sense of the fragmented and abundant information that makes up a typical social media feed. Is this something people can do?

To see whether people can easily pick up on others' expertise by browsing social media feeds, we conducted several studies in which hundreds of participants had to browse through made-up social media feeds. These feeds contained posts that pointed to a certain expertise domain without mentioning it. For example, one post hinted at someone's expertise in architecture: "New project starting in Beijing. Remodeling an old library building from the ground up." These were mixed in between posts that said nothing about a person's expertise (e.g., "You all know what they say: If you like your job, you will never work a day in your life. True thing").

We found that people seem to have what some experts call "ambient awareness of who knows what." That is, people were overall very good at picking up on other people's domains of expertise from simply scrolling through a social media feed without any instructions to learn about the people in the feed. In a quiz, they were able to accurately identify someone's expertise even though it was only implied in their post.  Importantly, people are about as good at picking up on people's expertise when reading these posts carefully as when merely skimming them.

It might seem like we're just saying that people can tell what their friends' expertise is. Did we really need a study to know that? But our findings go beyond such a simple conclusion. On most social media platforms, your feed doesn't only include posts by people you are already connected with or follow, but also posts by people you are only indirectly connected with. Also, as time passes, your direct contacts may shift their domains of expertise or add new ones. Our research suggests that browsing social media allows you to learn about strangers' expertise and even update your understanding of the expertise among your direct contacts even if you don't get the chance to talk to them one-on-one.

The Benefits of Quickly Accessing Experts

Social media platforms are places where people share their expertise, whether doing so explicitly on sites like LinkedIn or casually mentioning new projects on sites like Instagram. So, spending some time scrolling and swiping through your social media feeds hones your understanding of who knows what. And this isn't just background noise. It can be useful! You may find yourself with a question, and your idle time on Facebook several weeks ago means you know whom to ask.

So, next time you feel guilty about taking a short work break to browse social media, maybe remind yourself of the potential benefits. Of course, please don't do it if social media use is actually banned at your company. But if you are an employer who regulates social media use in your company or are just considering it, maybe think again—your employees may not only appreciate your trust in them and work better for it, but they might actually gain relevant insights that help them in their work.

For Further Reading

Anderl, C., Levordashka, A., & Utz, S. (2023). Ambient awareness of who knows what: Spontaneous inferences of domain expertise. Media Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2023.2239144

Christine Anderl is a postdoctoral researcher at the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien (Knowledge Media Research Center) in Tübingen, Germany. Her current research focuses on how digital social media affect the ways people connect, exchange ideas, make decisions, and (net)work.