Social Media And Psychology — Why Do People Share?

Social media usage has grown to become one of the most pervasive cultural phenomena in America. According to a survey by the Pew Research Group, in 2012 more than two-thirds of Internet users studied participated in a social networking site, with most focused towards Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr. Not engaging in social media, for many businesses, can be a death sentence—especially now that it has become so ubiquitous in the business world. As of 2014, a Social Media Examiner study found that 92% of marketers thought social media was important to their business.

Engaging, however, requires a keen grasp of the whys. Simply knowing how to write an eye-catching headline or throw out a set of GIFs on Tumblr isn’t enough. To really get into the mindset necessary to succeed on social media, marketers and salespeople have to understand the reasons behind every step of the process.

Why do people share things on social media that they might not share face-to-face? Why do people care about others’ social media presences? In what ways do people manifest their own identities using social networks?

The Big Five Reasons

A study by the New York Times Consumer Insight Group identified five major reasons people choose to share what they do on social media sites. 49% of participants in this study said that they shared to inform other people about what they care about or to affect new opinions or encourage action in those others. It’s reasonable to assume that at least one of these factors plays a role in nearly every tweet, reblog, or liked paged someone displays on a social media account. And while these impulses may be tempered by other desires or urges, they can be considered the core of sharing, from which many other components come.

For marketers, two of these reasons are very closely related (self-fulfillment and supporting a cause) and accordingly have been collapsed into a single description.


Supporting a Cause and Self-Fulfillment: Lots of Buckets of Ice Water Later

The most compelling reason to share, supporting a cause affected the social media patterns of as many as 84% of survey respondents. These shares can come in large and small forms, ranging from a simple tweet in support of a side of a recent political issue to participation in a widespread, momentous event.

One organization that hit social media gold with a visible, effective supporting-a-cause campaign was The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association. Its Ice Bucket Challenge, in which individuals dumped buckets of ice-cold water on themselves and challenged others to either do the same or donate to the ALS Association, completely enveloped social media during its prominence. Politicians, business leaders, sports figures, and celebrities all got in on the act, dumping ice on themselves and raising awareness—and money—for a worthy cause. These videos saw tremendous play among fans of major public favors, fueling their virality.

While some people might be prone to sharing any video that their favorite celebrity endorses, the Ice Bucket Challenge drew on another major pillar of social sharing: self-fulfillment. The challenge allowed those sharing it to feel as though they were making a difference in addition to supporting something worth the effort. Shared videos put more eyes on the challenge, and viewers could choose to participate themselves without much effort. Sharers not only felt entertained—they felt empowered, too.

Relationships: Finding Friends of Friends … Of Friends?

No discussion of social media would be complete without a least touching on the fact that it is called social for a reason. 78% of the NYT survey respondents indicated that they shared information to stay in contact with people who they otherwise might lose track of, or who would slip out of their lives.

To see this principle in action, one need look no further than Facebook. Individuals often add people to their friends lists who, under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t consider much more than casual acquaintances. People will often maintain Facebook friendship long after moving away from a region, staying in touch with those they can no longer simply see face-to-face in a casual setting. By sharing things that will potentially get these friends engaged, people can keep those friends’ attention and feeling of friendship long after they stop seeing them on a regular basis.

Although this doesn’t have as many direction applications for marketers are some of the other impulses, it can serve as an important reminder that each customer’s reach is just a little bigger than markets might expect. These connections can, in turn, bring a message into an unexpected segment of the population. Every share matters, and the ones that matter most might not be the ones that look like they would on paper.

Self-Expression: Playing the Song of Your People

For 68% of respondents, sharing is about showing other people what they care about and who they are, whether it’s to their followers, their friends, or the world at large. Sharing content becomes a performative act—one in which the primary focus is self-description. “This is me,” the sharer says as he or she reblogs a set of clips from Captain America. “This is me,” the sharer says as he or she retweets a comment from an infamous politician regarding the economy. For these social media consumers, the goal is first and foremost self-definition.

This core of sharing is particularly attractive for creative outlets like Tumblr and Pinterest, as well as on platforms like Twitter and Vine that be engaged with an almost steam-of-consciousness manner. People with the creativity to generate art and fiction often use social media this way, showing off the things they value through their work. Even easier, however, is offering one’s own thoughts on current issues or products through a tweet. Something as simple as “I like Starbucks” can fulfil that urge to say, “Hey—this is what I’m about.”

Entertainment and Action: The Core of Virality

The least common motivator of the core set, entertainment and product passion motivates about 49% of shares according to the NYT study. People share information on the brands, products, and activities they enjoy either to get more friends to enjoy the same things, or to affirm a specific identity among friends who they already know care about the same things.

This motivator explains phenomena like the mirroring of videos on YouTube, or the sharing of viral videos. People like to do simple, enjoyable things on social media, and there’s nothing more enjoyable than doing something one already knows is enjoyable and then sharing the experience. Users who are interested in a company’s products in the first place, before marketing or advertising campaigns, often share for this reason, and typically form the backbone of any viral campaign. Without this core of initial followers to get the engine started, most such campaigns will fizzle out before they ever get going.

Sharing Feels Good: Staying Positive

We have discussed the importance of positivity in business from many angles, but it always bears nothing in these discussions that in social settings, things that bleed shouldn’t lead. While outrage on the Internet can keep people engaged in modest doses, negativity is exhausting. Some of it, of course, is that people are often just looking to have a good time on social media, but the true reason for the rapid spread of positivity through social networks has to do with socialness, at least according to one researcher.

A social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jonah Berger, argues that bad news and shocking situations work for broadcast media, where eyes are only on the goal. But social works different. He says that in social media, the reaction is what matters more than anything else. Those using social media don’t want their friends to see them as depressing or angry or tedious, and accordingly, the things they tend to share are happier and lighter.

By looking at the share rates of various articles on the New York Times website and controlling for factors like page positioning and article size, Dr. Berger and his colleagues discovered that the most popular articles had a few traits in common. More often than not, the articles saw proportionally higher share rates inspired excitement, laughter, or awe. Topics like science or feel-good stories about New York City earned significantly more attention than deaths or catastrophes.

Similarly, when people’s enthusiasm and excitement were measured using brain monitoring equipment, the number one predictor of enthusiasm was “what appeals to others.” The idea of getting other people enthusiastic is one of the major impulses behind sharing. There’s an element of validation-seeking to it as well. Studies have also found that people enjoy talking about themselves, and like chances to make themselves seem positive in front of large audiences. This urge—to be seen by lots of people and to have that seeing feel positive—gets strong results when it comes to sharing.

Social Quizzing: A Way to Share The Self

One form of social media sharing that has taken off in recent years (though the practice dates back before the rise of Facebook and Twitter) is quizzes. The sorts of quizzes people post to social media sometimes have to do with expertise, but more often have to do with personality. These quizzes usually pose a series of questions about how the user might react to certain situations, or what the user’s favorite colors are, providing a list of options to choose from. At the end, the user receives some information in return—usually which character from a popular piece of media those answers most resemble.

Social media quizzes key into the desire to show off one’s identity on social media. Some users even try to game the system a little, answering in the way in which they expert their favorite character would, or even changing a couple answers after the first attempt to see if they get a more palatable result. People want to put their most desirable face forward on social media, and often share only if they get a satisfying result.

Quizzes can play a lot of roles in the social media package with careful use. They extend a site’s reach, certainly, if they are engaging enough to share. But more than that—they can help build a brand and build a relationship with that brand in a customer’s head. By thinking about themselves in relation to the characters and symbols that a business represents, customers can move to put that brand nearer to their heart and build their own identity using it.

Social Through the Ages: Developmental Psychology and Social Media

As social media continues to grow, it becomes more and more apparent that why people participate in it changes just as much as how they do. At different stages in their lives people are looking for different things—and how they use social media is informed by those unique needs.


One of many ways to break down developmental stages to examine their psychological needs (source).

Senior citizens, for example, use social media differently. The significant time they have to use social media makes them greater social campaign targets than one’s gut might say, and social media holds something unique for these individuals: the chance to look back. Communicating with old friends is easier, and the common platforms provide great opportunities to look back on times well spent. Even if they don’t participate, they’re watching.

For those between 34 and 60, social media meanwhile provides an opportunity to constructively interact with one’s environment and strengthen relationships. These people are often seeking ways to compartmentalize their social environments through social media. They may use one account solely for business activities, while another or even a different platform entirely fulfills family needs.

For marketers, this data suggests that even when social media is an essential part of a company’s strategy, one approach won’t fit every market. Different people are often looking for fundamentally different things out of the time they spend on social media, and a serious consideration of the age group one’s targeting is necessary to get the most out of time and money spent.

Virtual Communities: When Shouting Into the Void Isn’t Enough

Sometimes, social media users are looking for more than the ability to broadcast themselves; they’re looking to build new relationships, and for that, the asymmetric, user-broadcasting model of Facebook or Twitter is not enough. Users like these often gravitate towards virtual communities, whether they’re chatrooms, bulletin boards, or image boards. Many organizations have made it easy to participate in virtual communities related to their products or services by offering them on their own websites.

Just as with real communities, virtual communities need significant investment to stay thriving. Those that spring up around a single resource may well fall apart if that resource goes away, in the same way that some towns driven by former train routes or depleted natural resources become ghost towns. Even if the community becomes self-sustaining in its relationship with itself, the business behind it still needs to have something to say. It can often weather dry spells once it reaches a certain critical mass, but if people don’t feel their participation in the community is rewarded, they’ll leave.

To create a social media platform or online community that stands the test of time, John, Suler suggested in his 1996 work The Psychology of Cyberspace that an organization must adhere to several basic principles. Some of the most salient ones for modern social forums include:

•  Don’t over control. Though it can be tempting to moderation discussion aggressively and keep things as brand-friendly as possible, don’t give in to the temptation. Excessive regulation can kill a community in short order. Some careful moderation in a community’s early stages can give rise much more naturally to the culture a company wants to create.

•  Provide a sense of continuity. Saved discussions and long-term dialogues make users feel more of a sense of familiarity and belonging. At first, having to wade through old posts to see new ones can seem tedious, but it’s this sort of continuity that create the sense of an online community in the first place.

•  Allow users to contact each other privately. More robust private message features have long been requested of Twitter, and with good reason—the ability to privately communicate with members of the community is another cornerstone. Even though those interactions happen one-to-one, they’re a part of the user’s engagement with the community as a whole, and are part of what makes the time spent there stick in their minds.

•  Hold regular events that promote a feeling of community. By providing regular opportunities to participate in events like group roundtables, seasonal activities, and other unique events, communities get tighter. One major component of the success of Reddit is its regular “As Me Anything” events, in which celebrities, public figures, or people with unique and insightful jobs provide users with the chance to conduct a crowd-sourced interview. Having something distinctive happening on a regular basis keeps users coming back.

•  Make users feel like part of the community. Even small things, such as platinum forum membership for those who post a lot or a badge can create a sense of belonging, power, or responsibility. In the case of a forum, consider picking at least some of the volunteer moderation staff from the community at large, once it’s big enough. This strategy won’t work for every brand, of course, but for those that can extend this trust to some users, it can build community and relationships quite rapidly.

Online communities that can adhere to at least some of these guidelines have more staying power than those that done. For companies that want to use this older form of social media, getting familiar with things that make it strongest is necessary if forums that are more than a simple tech support channel are desired.

Knowing is Half the Battle

Though understanding social media from the bottom up can seem daunting, ultimately it’s about the same things that drive people in any social situation. People want to belong. People want to talk about themselves. People want to feel like the things they care about matter. Businesses that can channel those desires toward something positive and brand-supportive can succeed on social media. Without a plan and an understanding of how a social media effort will feed those desires, it’s like to simply be wasted time.

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