Even though we’re still trying to understand the psychology behind social media, it’s easy to see that something seems to “hook” us into these sites. In addition to strengthening our friendships and easing social integration with new people and groups, social media relies on a deep-seeded psychological need.
People who post things on the internet for others to see are subject to the extraordinarily powerful force of feedback, be it positive, negative, or none at all, and subject to it for an indefinite and infinite amount of time. This is the first time in human history that this is so, and frankly our neurons are not wired to handle this kind of uncertainty. In fact, humans are highly motivated to seek out certainty and security in regards to social acceptance, inclusion, and praise. To boot, studies have also shown that if humans (and other animals tested) are given positive feedback (a cookie or a compliment) on predictable schedules, in predictable amounts, or in response to predictable behavior, they are not nearly as motivated by the feedback. On the contrary, unpredictable feedback is much more psychologically motivating – in fact, it can be addictive.
The first hook of social media is a need for interaction with and acceptance from our peers. Human beings have evolved toward extreme social anxiety. BJ Fogg (author of Persuasive Technology and head of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford) points out that some of the biggest “motivators” in humans are seeking pleasure, manifesting our hopes, gaining acceptance, and fear of rejection. Nearly all of these motivators rely on the participation, opinions, evaluation, and judgement of other people.
Studies have also shown that within the possible set of “other people,” we seem to have most anxiety towards and are motivated most (not by family or close friends, but) by loose acquaintances and some nebulous set of other people defined as “peers.” Peers can have many definitions; for the purposes here, I’ll define “peers” as a group of composed of specified and unspecified individuals whose acceptance, inclusion, and praise seems dramatically important. It could be of professional or personal importance or, most likely, some combination of the two.
The other hooks of social media are asynchronous and one-to-many communication. Asynchronous communication simply means an action and its reaction can take place at different times. Snail mail, email, text, posts and comments, etc., are all asynchronous modes of communication, whereas conversations in person, over the phone, and on video chat are not. One-to-many communication refers to interactions where a specific responder is not specified, nor is the expected timeframe for response specified. Both asynchronicity and one-to-many modes of communication have strange effects on our psychology as the feedback of acceptance, inclusion, and praise is constantly unknown, unpredictable, and subject to change. Therefore, these properties naturally promote social anxiety and insecurity.
So, the hooks of social media and networking lie in these properties – interaction with peers, asynchronicity, and one to many communication – and the most successful sites are those that exploit these motivators successfully. During the last scene in the movie “The Social Network”, Mark Zuckerberg refreshes his Facebook account over and over and over, waiting for his ex-girlfriend to “accept” his friend request. The scene not only brings the movie full circle, it may embody the hopes and insecurities of an entire generation, raised on and increasingly addicted to the unpredictable validation of the Internet.