Earlier this month there was a flurry of articles about how and why people are posting fewer personal updates on Facebook. While I agree with the general assessment that there’s been a poor balance between professional and personal content, and that there is a decided lack of privacy on major social media sites, I think there’s another aspect of this problem: What keeps people motivated to continue sharing personal content over time?
A few years back, I had a conversation with a friend who had just started working at Facebook. This was around the time the site had removed the option to turn off or fine-tune certain kinds of updates. For instance, you could say “I never want to see Check-ins” or “I never want to see Life Events from John Smith”. I was expressing frustration about this change, as it made Facebook significantly less usable to me; my feed was now flooded with posts I had no interest in seeing.
The friend was totally perplexed by this. He could not imagine a world where he wouldn’t want to know the relationship status of his many hundreds of Facebook friends. I tend to view the site differently; the people whose personal updates I look forward to receiving are limited to a very small number of my closest friends. And I don’t think I’m alone in not wanting to be bombarded with the minutiae of a bunch of acquaintances’ lives. But this is how most sites currently work. Either you drink from the information fire hose, or you get left behind.
It strikes me that the expected usage for popular social networking sites is fairly “one-size-fits-all”, compared to their apparent desire to include everyone with an Internet connection. The further outside that limited use-case you fall, the less you’re apt to be motivated to participate.
Sharing and consuming content
For the purpose of this argument, let’s put aside the question about the delicate balance between professional and personal content, as this is a battle that must be fought perennially by every company that provides free content. What’s left to ask is what motivates people to be digitally social for more than a few months, particularly by sharing and consuming personal content?
Even those people who’ve not been directly affected by domestic abuse, stalking, harassment, or bigotry can understand why a feeling of control over the audience is crucial to sharing intimate sentiments in the first place. Some people may feel comfortable advertising their daily activities and personal thoughts to everyone and their dog, but some of us are all too conscious about how that sharing can be used for ill.
There’s also positive and negative reinforcement that happens when people share personal content. A study a few years ago found that a person’s “belonging needs” could either be met or threatened by the quality of response to their social networking posts. If responses are negative or non-existent, this can hurt people’s self-esteem.
It would naturally follow that the less control people can genuinely exert over the audience for their posts, the greater the odds of negative responses over time. Social networking sites are generally designed with the assumption that people will want to share with the maximum number of people, which is half of the problem.
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The other half of the problem with social sharing is lackluster response. Most people are not thinking about how their posts can generate maximum engagement, so whether they have 100 friends or 1,000, they may not inspire as much enthusiasm as they might hope. And posting uninteresting personal content more often, or to a wider audience, does not increase the odds of a response that generates an overall warm and fuzzy feeling for the person posting. Because the poster is not getting that social reward, the posting behavior is not being reinforced.
I’m sure we all have that one friend who oscillates between posting like crazy and going into self-imposed exile after getting one too many negative responses. Many of the rest of us dip our toe into the water and then leave when we get too little reward for our actions. And a clever few find an understanding of what makes posts that garner desirable responses, which motivates them to continue posting.
An increasing number of people seem to be sharing only professional content, becoming scarce on social media sites, or passively watching the content roll by. Unless popular social media sites manage to provide a safe space for people to express themselves in the way that feels most comfortable to them, and predominantly view content that interests them, the amount of original personal content is likely to continue dwindling. And while that might be a boon for security, community-building is part of what makes the Internet interesting.
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