I had the pleasure of attending Gartner L2’s Digital Leadership conference in London yesterday and it was packed with information about how brands use digital to communicate, sell, and grow. As usual, L2’s data-driven approach provides tons of value from a business perspective, but there was also a talk that was more psychological, and it encapsulated a lot about the reasons that people use social media.
Nathalie Nahai is a speaker and of the book “Webs of Influence” which combines psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics to explain how brands can persuade their customers using social platforms. She took the stage to break down why we use social media as individuals: and more specifically, what it reflects about our needs and desires. It’s definitely worth recapping and expanding on what she said since she managed to put into concrete terms what a lot of us have been thinking but maybe haven’t been able to express properly.
Here are some of the psychological reasons why we as people use social media.
Self esteem and self image
We like to be liked. Social media provides a real way of measuring what other people think about us, and since we are social creatures, what other people think about us has a big impact on what we think about ourselves.
When we share something that gets a lot of likes, it encourages us to share more. As we share more we see that different types of content gets different types of responses. When we see that selfies get more likes, we naturally start to share more selfies. Social media can therefore be considered a record of how we change our behavior over the course of time depending on how people react to our lives and ourselves. In extreme cases, people will actually go to places and do specific things in order to post that place or activity that they’ve seen other people doing.
Mimicking is a basic human ability that enables learning. So doing what you see other people do is completely natural. People who want to be liked doing things that make other people like them is a virtuous circle. The problem here though is that social media is not pure. It’s not a chronological timeline that exposes your content to all of your contacts. Algorithms control what we see, and those algorithms are not designed to do anything other than make you spend more time on social media.
Moreover, our Instagram feeds become idealized timelines of our lives that conveniently filter out hardships and forget boring and sad moments. So the more we filter and the more we post, the more we want to come back and look at it during the less pleasurable moments of our days and lives, like when you’re waiting at the doctor’s office or wake up at 2am with insomnia.
We want to identify more strongly with this vision of ourselves than with the prickly sides of reality. The likes give us self esteem, the feed gives us a presentation of ourselves that distorts the reality of who we are as people.
Changing our emotional state
This all leads to one of the reasons that we check social media: we go to social media when we want to change our emotional state. When we find ourselves in a situation like the one described above, be it bored, annoyed, frustrated, or distracted, the habit has become to reach for our phone and pull up social media.
Social media is a variable reward. Sometimes when you check it you are rewarded with photos of your friends doing something awesome and you feel a boost of joy. Imagine your friend you haven’t seen in a long time posts a photo of a restaurant in your city, you send them a message and meet up, a happenstance that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Seritonin flows.
On the other side, sometimes when you check social media you just see a couple of status updates or photos of unexceptional situations that leave you feeling indifferent. So you scroll faster until you hit something that catches your attention.
Out of any of the cases, you don’t know what you’re going to find, but the chance of finding something new is enough to push you to check often in those types of situations, in order to change your emotional state. No one likes to be bored.
Seek out information
Humans love information. Just look at anyone who gossips to see the pleasure we get from learning new things – about other people or about subjects that touch us in the world.
There are two types of information. Homogenous information is information that we seek which confirms our existing ideas. It’s information that is comforting to us. In social media this can take the form of following accounts that publish things that resonate with us, such as following The Onion if you’re progressive or following your favorite sports team. When they post something that you like, you read the comments to see all of the things that people say in agreement.
Heterogeneous information goes against what we believe. It contradicts what we know and leaves us feeling uncomfortable. In some senses this can be an opportunity for growth, to consider the other side of an argument and try to gain perspective. All too often this is an invitation to argue and troll, to react to someone else in defense, or even attack them and their credibility.
What’s remarkable here is that homogeneous information gets the benefit of the doubt, while any heterogeneous information get a very dubious treatment from our brains. This is exactly why fake news is so effective on social media. People see what they want to see and amplify it, regardless of its veracity. People attack what they want to attack regardless of its veracity.
Social media today can be accurately called an echo chamber because over time people unfollow others they don’t agree with. If a conservative who hates the environment sees their contact posting about the pending extinction of polar bears, instead of thinking about this the next time he fills up his Ford F350 he will just unfollow the contact. Eventually people’s networks reflect only their projected selves, and less and less heterogeneous information will be able to break through.
Affiliate to reduce stress
The homogenization of our networks allows us to increasingly leverage social media to complain, commiserate, and vent our anger or sadness in order to reduce our emotional stress. In the same way that you would call your bestie after a bad breakup to talk about how shitty that guy was anyway, people take to broadband to find sympathetic eyes and ears for whatever is bothering them.
This can come in many different forms. People posting their favorite memory of a friend or celebrity who passed away. People complaining about lost baggage at an airport. People criticizing their quarterback’s awful performance. Some people even go so far as to post a cryptic message like “not again!!!” inviting someone to break the ice by asking what went wrong.
If these types of posts effectively reduce emotional stress, then having an extra place to vent would have to be classified as a good thing, despite the fact that its effect on other people could be to perturb them.
The last reason that I’m going to talk about here deals with value signaling. Value signaling means sharing what we find meaningful and important on an ethical or moral level. It can take the form of both positive and negative types of content. The positive side includes posts promoting charities or social causes. The negative side includes posting content to make people aware of deforestation or plastic in the oceans. It can also include sharing viral content that reveals bad corporate behavior (like the United Airlines fiasco).
We signal our values for two main reasons. First, we want to inflict some sort of cultural change on the world, either by inspiring or shaming others. We do believe that our actions on social media can make a difference. But the second reason is that we want to be associated with certain values that our part of society holds dear. When we signal our values – particularly our political positions – we are declaring our associations with beliefs and groups. Since a post on social media will not stop a tree from getting cut down anywhere in the world, the associative power of value signaling takes precedence, and in many cases is enough to satisfy us.