Constant psychological boosts keep you hooked Deleting Facebook


By S. SHYAM SUNDAR

Pennsylvania State University

Here we go again: another Facebook controversy, yet again violating our sense of privacy by letting others harvest our personal information.

This flareup is a big one to be sure, leading some people to consider leaving Facebook altogether, but the company and most of its over 2 billion users will reconcile. The vast majority will return to Facebook, just like they did the last time and the many times before that.

As in all abusive relationships, users have a psychological dependence that keeps them hooked despite knowing that, at some level, it’s not good for them.

Decades of research has shown that our relationship with all media, whether movies, television or radio, is symbiotic: People like them because of the gratifications they get from consuming them – benefits such as escapism, relaxation and companionship. The more people use them, the more gratifications they seek and obtain.

With online media, however, a consumer’s use provides data to media companies so they can serve up exactly what would gratify her most, as they mine her behavior patterns to tailor her online experiences and appeal to her individual psychological needs.

Aside from providing content for our consumption, Facebook, Twitter, Google – indeed all interactive media – provide us with new possibilities for interaction on the platform that can satisfy some of our innate human cravings.

Interactive tools in Facebook provide simplified ways to engage your curiosity, broadcast your thoughts, promote your image, maintain relationships and fulfill the yearning for external validation. Social media take advantage of common psychological traits and tendencies to keep you clicking – and revealing more of yourself. Here’s why it’s so hard, as a social network user, to pull the plug once and for all.

The more you click, the stronger your online relationships. Hitting the ‘Like’ button, commenting on photos of friends, sending birthday wishes and tagging others are just some of the ways in which Facebook allows you to engage in “social grooming.”

The more you reveal, the greater your chances of successful self-presentation. Studies have shown that strategic self-presentation is a key feature of Facebook use. Users shape their online identity by revealing which concert they went to and with whom, which causes they support, which rallies they attend and so on. In this way, you can curate your online self and manage others’ impressions of you, something that would be impossible to do in real life with such regularity and precision. Online, you get to project the ideal version of yourself all the time.

The more you click, the more you can keep an eye on others. This kind of social searching and surveillance are among the most important gratifications obtained from Facebook. Most people take pleasure in looking up others on social media, often surreptitiously. The more you reveal, the greater your social net worth. Being more forthcoming can get you a job via LinkedIn. It can also help an old classmate find you and reconnect. The more you click, the bigger and better the bandwagon. When you click to share a news story on social media or express approval of a product or service, you’re contributing to the creation of a bandwagon of support. Metrics conveying strong bandwagon support, just like five stars for a product on Amazon, are quite persuasive, in part because they represent a consensus among many opinions.The more you reveal, the greater your agency. Whether it’s a tweet, a status update or a detailed blog post, you get to express yourself and help shape the discourse on social media. In all these ways, social media’s features provide us too many important gratifications to forego easily. If you think most users will give all this up in the off chance that illegally obtained data from their Facebook profiles and activities may be used to influence their votes, think again.

While most people may be squeamish about algorithms mining their personal information, there’s an implicit understanding that sharing personal data is a necessary evil that helps enhance their experience. The algorithms that collect your information are also the algorithms that nudge you to be social, based on your interests, behaviors and networks of friends. Without Facebook egging you on, you probably wouldn’t be quite as social.

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