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The Psychology of Facebook

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud or an evolutionary biologist to figure out that there is something about Facebook that resonates deeply in our psyches and in our lizard brains.  New research is attempting to identify and document how this works.

The fact that people accumulate friends and family members and then post and watch countless still images and videos feels very primal and tribal. We are exercising the passive aspect of our flight or fight instincts as we build our social networks.  Recent survey data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that individuals extend their introvert or extrovert tendencies and play out predictable gender roles in social media.

Twenty to thirty percent of Facebook users are “power users”. Like those people who call into talk radio shows, these individuals create the most content, post more frequently, like more aggressively and comment on or tag others pictures and posts often. Yet only 5% of the Facebook user base, do all of these things. For the majority Facebook is a more passive experience where they get more than they give.

The Pew folks found that  …

  • 63% got a friend request but only 40% made one

  • The average person hit “Like”14 times/month but was “Liked” by others 20 times

  • Users get 12 messages, but send only 9

  • Comments outpace status updates 2.5:1

  • 35% of users were tagged in photos, but only 12% tagged a friend in their photos

  • Women updated their status 3 times more often than men

There seems to be an emerging engagement dynamic that combines a consensus on courtesy, expected behaviors and the desire to watch, listen and see without too much of an investment of time or emotion.

The average Facebook user has 245 friends. The average friend of a friend has 359. Each person’s friend list is loosely connected. There’s a mere 12% overlap when friends are matched against friends’ friends. Yet 80% of friend requests were reciprocated and fewer than 5% of Facebook users “unfriend” somebody. We seem link ourselves to the more popular kids in the class and watch them do their thing. Facebook feels a lot like High School.

Facebook also appears to be a habit leading to addiction for a segment of the user base. Psychologist Wilhelm Hofman of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago wired up 205 people in Wurzburg, Germany and quizzed them 7 times a day for 14 days to see what they were doing and feeling.  He found that Facebook and Twitter are more addictive and harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes but not as desired as sleep or sex.

Hofman speculates that the addictiveness is hard to resist because the cost (in time or emotion) is so little. “ Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of the high availability and also because it feels like it doesn’t ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities even though one wants to resist.” Resistance to the allure of Facebook degrades further as the day goes on accounts for strong evening and night usage.

It’s no surprise that as 50% of US Facebook users visit the site daily, 40% of women, polled by Lightspeed-Oxygen Media, admit to being Facebook addicts. One in three check Facebook before they brush their teeth or wash their face in the morning. One in four checks Facebook in the middle of the night or falls a sleep PDA in hand.

Facebook means you never have to be alone. Facebook insures you always have someone to talk to and something to see and react to. Facebook is so personalized that it borders on narcissism. On Facebook you can brag, rant, pose, emote, share, offer TMI and act out in ways that your real friends and family might not tolerate. And while many users voice privacy concerns about Facebook, a kind of cognitive dissonance is at play when people post all kinds of intimate thoughts, feelings and pictures.

It’s one of the very few experiences that almost always delivers on expectations. A Facebook session always includes something that each individual cares about. It’s much more reliable and friendly than most real friends. Facebook reaffirms connections to clan, tribe, class and community. Facebook might just be the antidote to existential loneliness.

The implication for brands is clear. Be human. Try to connect with each person individually. Tap the egocentric, the longing, and the sense of community, the feeling of inclusiveness that speaks deeply to us and keeps us coming back.

Helping dominant brands extend their share and grow customer loyalty and helping insurgent and start-up brands capture attention, awareness and market share. Danny Flamberg has been building brands and building businesses for more than 25 years. He...

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