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Socio-psychological factors for viral engagement

Human beings are instinctively social creatures. Social media apps, largely since Facebook, have categorically tapped into some basic elements of social interaction, and brought it into cyberspace; and it is for this reason that they’re some of the largest and most influential companies in the world – and hence also some of the most ubiquitous, publicised, and scrutinised.

Social media, in general, lays its groundwork on some basic socio-psychological phenomena, which we should certainly keep in mind if we wish to create the next big thing in this space;

Acceptance, and sense of belonging

For the most part, people are largely driven by their need to belong. Our need for social acceptance is very high, and it manifests in various ways, eg.

  • We are much more likely to buy items, visit places, or meet people, that existing people around us find generally desirable (like Apple products due to their high brand value, visiting exotic but well-known locations like Paris and Venice, or bragging about meeting influential people).
  • We are always elated when we receive social attention, admiration, or acclaim. In fact, most of the larger strategic goals/ambitions in everyone’s lives are largely based on factors that are considered socially acceptable in the person’s immediate community (eg. Doctors, Engineers.)
  • We tend to gravitate towards communities that we wish to be a part of; we like to be associated with (or assumed to be in) certain groups that reflect aspirations of our own; we want to be seen with wealthy, influential, desirable individuals. Conversely, we often do not want to be associated with communities and groups that do not reflect our own values.

Social media largely capitalised on our need for social acceptance by offering us ways to be a part of, and exposed to, communities that we find desirable. We can easily follow / befriend people from the avenues of life that we aspire to be around (eg. photographers, musicians, fashion bloggers, movie stars etc.) Most social media platforms involve creating and maintaining groups and communities based on common interests, and merely being a part of such groups gives users satisfaction (and bragging rights). Even platforms that aren’t primarily social (eg. Medium, Dribbble, Stack Overflow, some online video-game communities) often end up having strong and closed communities driven by people’s need to contribute and be associated to what these larger communities represent (design, tech, gaming culture etc.)

Vanity

Human beings all wish to be desired, envied, and generally fawned over. For much of human history however, this came at a very high price. We had to carefully construct our personalities to emphasise aspects that people found desirable, and downplay parts that were considered unappealing; we had to maintain rigid physical health, posture, grace, and pay attention to our looks at all times; we also had to carefully control our mannerisms at all times.

Furthermore, in order to be desired by the community, we frequently had to move out of our comforts and stay exposed to people all the time by ensuring physical presence in all places we wanted to be seen in. Lastly, in spite of all our efforts, no one could be certain about how revered he was in a community.

Over the past decade however, social media has moved in and made vanity far more quantifiable, approachable, and accessible. By reducing “appeal” and “fame” to “likes” and “followers”, social media has handed human beings a metric by which to measure their success in this arena; the higher this number, the higher your desirability. Social media makes it easy to control people’s perceptions of ourselves, as we control the timing, nature, and quality of content they’re exposed to.

It is extremely easy for us to highlight moments of our life where we are happiest, and broadcast them to everyone, while completely ignoring the banal, trivial, or disappointing aspects of our lives, and hiding them completely from the public eye. Social media also grants people an indirect way to communicate with those who envy (possibly hate) them, and demonstrate our apathy to them as well as emphasise on how we’re better off after (or in spite of) them – something that would be too aggressive and targeted if spoken out directly.

Contribution and mentorship

While human beings usually aren’t closed to learning new things, almost every human being is exceptionally enthusiastic about teaching and sharing. We crave for opportunities to demonstrate our own learnings, and share our own experiences, sometimes regardless of whether there is any benefit to any party by doing so. We like the thought of being people who are actively pushing a community forward, and most social media platforms are using this tendency of ours to some extent.

Apps like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp give us mediums with which we can share our opinions and experiences with the world – in fact, these platforms actively encourage us to do so (“What’s on your mind?”, “Share to Facebook this great article that you just read”, or “Here’s a recap/collage of your experiences with x entity”). Apps like Quora, Reddit, and Medium give us platforms with which we can answer people’s questions, publish/share content, and generally gather approval and feedback from people at large. Apps like Dribbble, StackOverflow, 500px etc. are also avenues through which we contribute to, and are a part of, communities that are desirable to us, and are often used as a measure of your status in those respective fields.

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