The Psychology of Social Media

Now I am not a psychologist, but I play one on TV … but seriously, I have always been interested and curious with the phenomenon of human behavior and what motivates individuals to do certain things. For me, the most fascinating platform to examine the driving force behind human action is social media as this is where I vest much of my personal and professional time.

So this week I have given the question, “Why do people engage in social media channels and what motivates them to reveal or filter their thoughts” much conscious (and subconscious) thought. I realize that the answer to this question is not applicable straight across the board. The response can vary across age groups, gender, geography, income-level, period of one’s life and any other demographics you can think of. But as a marketing professional, it is our duty to understand the audience we serve.

So here are some thoughts, so far from an exhaustive list, but hey, let’s get this conversation started.

For a long time, bumper stickers have been a broadcast to the world to convey an interest, position, or accomplishment. The stronger the conviction, the more likely a broadcast whether it is an announcement from a dog lover, political support, or the fact that your child is an honor student at school. Social media is a similar platform but the breadth and depth of who you can reach is far greater. Thus, the first reason that I would add to the list is that people use social media to position who they are, what matters to them, and accomplishments they have achieved.

Next, I’ll suggest that human emotion spawns social media interaction. Love what a brand has done for you? Really pissed off when you get screwed by a company or feel that they are endangering well being? Social media is the stage to tell a whole lot of people. It is the behaviorist approach suggested by BF Skinner. In its simplest form, reward good; punish bad.

Sometimes people use positive and negative brand reinforcement beyond emotion – they have an agenda. An agenda premeditated and not invoked as a response to an interaction with a brand. A motivation that can either seek to place a brand on a pedestal (often for personal gain) or diminish the brand’s reputation because the individual has a chip on their shoulder or a grudge.

Do recognize that both introverts and extroverts use social media as a communication platform. What is important to comprehend, is that these two polarized groups use social media for different reasons and ways.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge runs a blog “Media Psychology Matters,” and in a recent article titled, “The Roles for Vigilantes …,” she suggests that people use social media to keep order in their world. Others suggest that social media is used for building one’s personal brand. (Check out Dan Schawbel for more on this topical area.) I guess the key point for me is that social media communication “presents consistent, readable cues about the … author’s personality” as will be shown in a study soon to be published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.

I do not pose to suggest that I have (or can) cover all the motivations for people to use social media. My intent is two-fold: 1) Emphasize the importance of understanding your target market and how and why they might use social media, and 2) get the conversation started on the whole concept of social media motivation. As business professionals, it is imperative to think in this perspective so that you work your social strategy and plan before you do your social execution.

I know there is a ton of information to add to this mere start. What do you think and what is your perspective?

Join The Conversation!
Social Steve



Filed under behavior, social media, social media marketing, Social Steve, socialmedia, SocialSteve, Uncategorized

8 responses to “The Psychology of Social Media

  1. Hi Steve,

    I appreciate your initiative. Social media is also one of my interests, although I study the digital technology as a whole and try to understand its effects on our society. I have a problem with your approach, which is similar to many other folks I know working on marketing applications. There is a tendency to eliminate crucial aspects of the digital technology when you talk about social media, aspects which cannot be left aside without impairing our capacity to understand how people engage with this new technology. The digital technology is about communication, collaboration and coordination, and powerful logistical tools are right around the corner. It is not just a communication and participation platform.

    Having said that, I believe people use the new technology to extract value for themselves. They do it to socialize, to engage in social issues, to collaborate on different projects and co-create, co-produce, to market their products, to sell their products, to coordinate their actions with others, all this for whatever is important for them as individuals. It is as general as that, and if we try to limit the scope of these new tools we are making a mistake. one can narrow the question to why people are on Facebook, but you the answer will not give you the entire picture. More importantly, individuals use the new technology to build new alternatives to classical hierarchical and monopolistic institutions, their primary motivation is to escape monopolies, to exchange peer-to-peer freely, naturally.

    Self determination, self expression, freedom, opportunity to create value and benefit from it by bypassing monopolized channels, these are the strongest motivations of individuals behind their use of the new technology. This is the multitude awakening, this is what drives the multitude social movement.

    Search “Multitude Project” for more …

    • Tiberius:

      Your comments are great and an excellent addition. The only thing I would add, is that my article was a perspective, not an approach. I am a marketing professional, so that definitely creates a certain subjectivity to my statements. I believe in a diverse group to solve business objectives and challenges. The diversity allows many perspectives to be integrated. My “approach” is to make sure that different perspectives are integrated. Thus, I truly appreciate your perspective, based on your experience. This sort of perspective must be integrated to a winning approach.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!

      Social Steve

  2. Chelsea


    First off, I’d like to start off by saying, I love this discussion! I work in the advertising/marketing industry, but I have a Master’s in Business Psychology. Thus, I’m interested in this topic on many levels…

    I do agree with your thoughts above, but as I ask myself the question “Why do people engage in social media channels and what motivates them to reveal or filter their thoughts…” what comes to mind is this… pressure and social acceptance.

    I think that many people who engage in social media (for personal and professional reasons) do so because “they have to” (or at least they feel like they have to). Think about it… if you work for a company and it does not have a Facebook or Twitter account, some would say you’re way behind the curve – big time – and you need to catch up ASAP. To extend this thought a little more, some would even say that you’re hurting your business and it will not grow if you don’t have a presence in the virtual world. I’ve done the research, social media is hot… If you’re not doing it, you’re crazy. If you’re not on Facebook or Twitter, your looked at as unconventional. It’s everywhere!

    With this constant feeling of rush/panic comes my thoughts on being socially accepted in the virtual world. Many are now surrounded and obsessed with how many “friends” and “followers” one has… If this has nothing to do with social acceptance, I don’t know what does. Even more so, some companies are out there who really shouldn’t be or really don’t know what they are doing. Why else would they create a profile if not to be included..? What’s the point in having something and not using it to your advantage?

    There is a constant feeling of “I must catch up!” At least this is what I’m observing (and experiencing). Technology, marketing, and advertising (among a thousand other things) are changing right in front of us…it’s hard to keep up. I’m in my late 20s, so I’m not completely inept when it comes to social media ;), but honestly sometimes my reasoning to get on my social networking sites (personally and professionally) is because I don’t want to be “left out”. You’ve got to keep going…or you’ll be left behind.


    • Hi Chelsea,

      While some people might feel like “the have to,” I think there at least an equal number of people who feel concerned that they will look foolish doing so. I have had a number of people who have written to me something like, “I have wanted to say something for a while, but I have been afraid.” In all cases, these are people that have had great things to say – not silly, but really thought provoking.

      Your comments make much sense. As with my comments about people in the article, your comments represent a group of people – not all people … there are many different reasons “why” and “why not.” I appreciate you joining the conversation and adding another valid perspective.

      Social Steve

  3. I like the article because it offers perspective on the types of people who use social media and why. However, does anyone know of the success rate a business has had in posting their products or services on a social media page such as Twitter, Face Book or LinkedIn? What is my potential ROI from the time spent updating my social media sites?

    • Hi Frank,

      Social media works best an an integrated approach. There is not an ROI for specific use of Twitter, Face Book or LinkedIn. I do suggest checking out my article on Socialnomics titled “Socialnomics – Social Media ROI or Social Media Measurement?” at

      Social Steve

  4. Great conversation and perspectives. What I’m experiencing is that with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it’s the basic human need to connect that draws us in. On some level, it brings us joy to connect with people and I’ve experienced it.

    Once the tools begin working to satisfy a basic human need, they extend to becoming efficient at achieving something; finding the best deal, getting a hot lead, learning the next “new” thing. Whether we like it or not, we grow every day, albeit often in some small way. Digital communication helps us achieve this and fills us with a feeling of being on top.

    I’m glad to have another place to connect.

  5. Now, while I’m not on TV (yet!), I am a psychologist, and I am interested in the same topics that you are, particularly in relation to social media. (I blog about it at the above address, and have a fanpage here

    To answer your question, “Why do people engage in social media channels and what motivates them to reveal or filter their thoughts?” as succinctly as I can, then there are three parts:
    – people engage in social media simply to communicate with other people. That is all. That is a simple human, social need. (What keeps them engaged with specific social media is a different matter altogether – but you didn’t ask that!)
    – what motivates people to reveal their thoughts is, as you have said, human emotion. Frustration, happiness, curiosity – all of these things inspire people to communicate (but there’s more…)
    – what motivates people to filter their thoughts is the realisation that social media connect people to a public place, whereas previously, when revealing their thoughts (above!) they had assumed that social media connected them (to their friends and family!) to a private place.

    How do you like those apples? 🙂

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