The psychology of going social

26 Oct 2010|Added Value

“Rather than being exclusively online or in-line, many community ties are complex dances of face-to-face encounters, scheduled meetings, two-person telephone calls, emails to one person or several, and broader online discussion among those sharing interests” (Wellman 2001: 237).

Why is social networking so popular? There is little doubt that it has something to do with how life is speeding up, and the need for instantaneous social interaction, especially in an increasingly globalised world.  

Virtual social networks respond to our need for instant gratification – that drive for “immediate and instant satisfaction” – that is part and product of our fast-paced lifestyles.  Chatting after school or work is as easy as logging onto MXit, catching up with friends is swiftly done by updating a status on Facebook.

But it’s not just about the need for speed.  Virtual networks also offer us something that responds directly to our psychological development as humans. A process which has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years.

According to the field of Developmental Psychology, human beings pass through a number of stages in order to develop into a fully functioning, healthy adult:

As a young teenager, we play around with our identity by changing your clothes, the friends we hang around with and the way we speak; we might shift from quiet, shy librarian-type girl, to an extroverted, outspoken, party chick.

As we grow older and become a young adult, we begin to realise that it’s not all about us and that other people are important too, so we spend our time trying to build and maintain relationships with friends and lifetime partners by meeting for lunch, chatting for hours on the telephone or writing long missives.

As we approach mid-adulthood we realise that our contribution to society and the legacy we might eventually leave behind is at stake, so we become involved in things like the neighbourhood watch and women empowerment groups.

If we were to draw a comparison between personality development today and 100 years ago, we’d see that we still do all these things.  The difference is that now we have access to hundreds of additional tools to help us explore each stage. And social networking platforms are the mother lode of ways to connect with these needs.

Interestingly, one area of human psychology social networks has brought even more to the fore is our tendency to consciously decide and by choice nurture those relationships that may be useful to us.  For example, a friend at a company we would eventually like to work for might receive more virtual attention than we would have given this person in relationship in “real” life.  We activate dormant and non-existent ties because of the benefits they may add to our lives.

The theory of personality, or rather the stages of psychosocial development, was explored by developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, in 1950. He became aware of the influence of culture on behaviour while working with Sioux Indian children at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He believed that the course of development is determined by the interaction of the body (genetic biological programming), mind (psychological), and cultural influences (ethos).

Erikson’s theory proposed that every person passes through 8 stages, from birth until death, to reach their “full development”. During each stage we need to overcome a conflict between two opposing states, such as ‘intimacy vs. isolation’, so that we can develop a healthy, positive identity.

Trust, autonomy, initiative and self-esteem are learned during stages 1-4 (birth to 12 years) and are largely influenced by others.  In contrast, the outcome of stages 5-8 is driven by our own influences and the main psychological conflicts revolve around issues of identity during adolescence, intimacy during young adulthood, generativity during middle adulthood and integrity during late adulthood.

It is interesting that even though Erikson came up with this theory 6 decades ago, it is still relevant to our lives. This theory helps us understand why social networks are so popular among certain age groups and why.

Social networks seem to be a natural playground among teenagers.  The teen years are for experimenting, it’s a time for exploring and playing with identities. Social networks have become a trial space for the real world. Teens showcase new hairstyles or express themselves in unique and different ways, without being reprimanded by parents or other adults. They befriend certain people or affiliate themselves to celebrities or fan-based groups to signify their popularity or belonging (to the in-crowd).

Online, teens freely express what they feel and are completely open to the opinions and suggestions of others. Their actions and behaviours are either critiqued or affirmed by friends, and they will only display these behaviours to the outside world after it has been validated online.

In short, online social networks enable adolescents to perform a range of identities and social roles, before committing to the most socially favoured one in the real world.

But it’s not just teens who are finding validation and support online. Research conducted by TNS Research Surveys in South Africa reveals that the users of social networking are actually primarily young and middle-aged adults. They suggest that the average adult social networker is in their 30’s: the average age of Facebook users in South Africa is 33; MySpace is 32; Twitter and YouTube users are 31; and the youngest users were on MXit with an average age of 27.

Erikson’s developmental theory offers some hints as to why this may be so. He suggests that young adults between the ages of 18-35 are searching for intimacy and solidarity (possibly a reason for why dating sites have gained traction amongst this age group). Sites like Facebook and MXit which promote intimacy and togetherness appeal to this group. What they’re really looking for are sites that provide them with a connecting ground and bring people who share common interests together (e.g. teachers.net for teachers).

Middle aged adults have been slower on the uptake, but early indications show usage is definitely on the rise. Erikson suggests that people between the ages of 33-55 (sometimes 65) focus on contributing to the betterment of society and teaching others about the values from their culture.

Middle-aged adults often use social networks as a platform for them to express things they feel strongly about e.g. educating youth, crime etc. Religious networks and even career networks such as LinkedIn become important as this gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of rootedness and stability. For these middle-aged adults social networking is about staying true to themselves on the one hand, and on the other it’s about reassuring themselves of their purpose and worth in society.

The popularity of social networking and growth of virtual interaction is almost unprecedented.  And while we might be tempted to hail new technology as a break through in human socialization, it really is just a modern means of meeting our ancient, deep rooted psychological needs.

People of all ages have embraced social networking because it enables them connect, to share and ultimately to resolve those developmental conflicts we need to emerge as healthy adults.

So what does this mean for brands operating in this space?

Understand the needs of the people using each platform – and which segments of your consumers are using them.  Offer genuine opportunities for those communities to express or resolve those needs.  If a community or platform doesn’t exist for the needs of your community, create one.

By Chanelle Govindsamy and Dr Inka Crosswaite, Added Value South Africa

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