“I love to stalk people."
“People want to go online and check out their friends, so why not build a website that offers that?” Jesse Eisenberg, as Facebook founder and owner Mark Zuckerberg, says in the 2010 movie, The Social Network.
More than 13 years after the social networking site, which hit two billion users last month, was launched, some of the world’s top academics are still debating why its popularity keeps growing.
Researchers at Brigham Young University in the US have released the results of their own exploratory study aimed at exploring why people feel the need to put their lives on display. They interviewed 47 young adults - a small sample size, but one they say is big enough to be “highly reliable”.
“What keeps us virtually connected all day, every day - even to the point of withdrawal where people can’t get their fix?” they asked.
Based on their findings, the researchers fit people and their “social selves” into four basic categories - relationship builders, town criers, selfies and window-shoppers:
Relationship builders use Facebook to maintain the relationships they have with family and friends. They love to gather and share information by posting photos and videos, receive likes and chat with people they consider important via Messenger.
For them, socialising on Facebook is like socialising in real life. Their virtual friends are their friends in reality. They see Facebook as a time-efficient way to contact people scattered around the place. For them, the website is not an open virtual society, but rather a mini-hub for their personal use. Some example quotes:
“Facebook is an instant way to ask for help or something I need from people.”
“I really like having [family] post on my wall and stuff because I don’t call them on my phone - it’s just an easy way to say ‘hi’ and share a bit of love.”
Town criers rely on Facebook as a venue to get their words and opinions across. That may include information they view as important. They aren’t necessarily looking for two-way conversations and maintaining relationships. They wouldn’t talk to their family like they do on the site as it’s too impersonal and public.
Town criers are also curious about what the world is saying and what people think. They find it hard to read people on social media. The virtual world lacks profound meaning for them. It’s a supplement to the real one. Some example quotes:
“[Facebook] keeps me updated on the world news and what the public opinion is and how it’s shifting.”
“We are not really public, we don’t post on other’s walls - ‘ahh we love our family’ - or that kind of stuff.”
Selfies use Facebook for validation and self-gratification. The more people like a post of theirs, the more they feel liked. Selfies enjoy attention and are especially drawn to the ‘thumbs up’ function. They use Facebook mostly to post photos of themselves and update their status. They get far more pleasure from this than content posted by others.
For selfies, Facebook isn’t necessarily a way to build relationships. They enjoy telling people how much fun they are having in their lives. They select and edit their photos to perfection. They are self-promoters and don’t find deep relational meaning in social media. Some example quotes:
“[Facebook] is not my diary, but it is a public place where I can document my life.”
“Facebook’s just a way for me to get validated.”
Window-shoppers are people who enjoy using Facebook from a removed perspective. They feel socially obligated to have a page to stay connected with friends and family, but spend most of their time looking at others’ profiles. They like collecting information about other people.
They tend to have very little personal or private information on their Facebook pages. They don’t post updates about life events as those important to them were probably there. If not, they’ll eventually tell them face-to-face. Some example quotes:
“I love to stalk people. If someone mentions someone’s name, I get on Facebook and get first-glance ideas about them.”
“I don’t like posting stuff about myself. I just like looking at other people’s pages.”
The authors of the study say people will have characteristics that crossover more than one category. For example, both relationship builders and selfies positively respond to ‘likes’. The difference may be the former views ‘likes’ as a way of expressing love or care, while ‘likes’ are more of a currency for selfies, who may ‘like’ someone else’s post and expect a ‘like’ in return.
New media senior lecturer at AUT, Philippa Smith, says this type of research is interesting for people to reflect on how social network websites affect their behaviour.
“There are many reasons to study social media as it’s dramatically changing our lives, especially for people like me who remember life before the internet, it’s a different world.”
She expects to see more work done understanding people’s use of social media.
“Research like this can help us understand why people behave a certain way and predict trends - it could certainly be useful for businesses that use Facebook for strategic purposes - and there are ongoing issues around privacy and cyber bullying,” she says.
“We could also, for example, explore why people upload inappropriate images and videos online or how potential employers rely on social networking sites for information about job applicants.”
Smith has worked on research that interviews New Zealanders every two years about their internet use. In 2007, 39 percent of people were signed up to Facebook. Two years ago it was 79 percent. More than half of people now say sites like Facebook are important to their daily lives.