What would happen if you were to “like” everything you saw on social media?

The developer Rameet Chawla found out when he built a script that liked every photo that passed through his Instagram feed.

  • He grew his followers by about 30 a day
  • He got invited to more parties
  • He got stopped on the street by people who recognized him from Instagram
  • He got message after message from friends encouraging him to post more. He said it was “almost like they were frustrated, like they were longing for something to like in return.”

The likes, comments and posts we share on social media can often seem inconsequential, but they matter. They tap into some of the very elements that make us human, our addictions, desires, anxieties and joys.

What if we could understand the psychology of social media and use that knowledge to bring customers closer, give them more of what they want, and create better relationships?

I had the supreme privilege of talking about just that topic at Mozcon, a super fun and crazy informative marketing conference put on by our friends at Moz. I’m excited to share the highlights with you!

The Psychology of Social Media: Why We Like, Comment, and Share Online

How to listen: iTunes | Google Play | SoundCloud | Stitcher | RSS

Social media biology: Dopamine and oxytocin

The pull of social media addiction isn’t all in our heads. It’s quite real, thanks to two chemicals our brains produce: dopamine and oxytocin.

Dopamine

PSM Mozcon.006

Scientists used to think dopamine was a pleasure chemical in the brain, but now we know what it actually creates is want. Dopamine causes us to seek, desire, and search.

Dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability, by small bits of information, and by reward cues—pretty much the exact conditions of social media.

The pull of dopamine is so strong that studies have shown tweeting is harder for people to resist than cigarettes and alcohol.

Oxytocin

PSM Mozcon.008

Then there’s oxytocin, sometimes referred to as “the cuddle chemical” because it’s released when you kiss or hug.

Or … tweet. In 10 minutes of social media time, oxytocin levels can rise as much as 13%—a hormonal spike equivalent to some people on their wedding day.

And all the goodwill that comes with oxytocin—lowered stress levels, feelings of love, trust, empathy, generosity—comes with social media, too.

As a result, social media users have shown to be more trusting than the average Internet user. The typical Facebook user is 43% more likely than other Internet users to feel that most people can be trusted.

So between dopamine and oxytocin, social networking not only comes with a lot of great feelings, it’s also really hard to stop wanting more of it.

Social media actions: Why we post, share, like and comment

Next, let’s look at some of the major activities we do online and find out what psychological strings are being pulled with each of them.

Why we post on social media

why we post

It’s not news that we love to talk about ourselves.

Humans devote about 30–40% of all speech to talking about themselves. But online that number jumps to about 80% of social media posts. That’s a huge jump!

Why? Talking face-to-face is messy and emotionally involved–we don’t have time to think about what to say, we have to read facial cues and body language.

Online, we have time to construct and refine. This is what psychologists call self-presentation: positioning yourself the way you want to be seen.

The feeling we get from self-presentation is so strong that viewing your own Facebook profile has been shown to increase your self-esteem.

What’s also interesting for marketers is that the most prominent way we tend to work on self- presentation is through things—buying things and acquiring things that signify who we are.

things to identify ourselves

Think: Clothes, games, music, the logo on your laptop right now.

The intensity of emotion people can feel for their favorite brands as a result of this is incredible. An experiment showed volunteers two types of photos: the logo for a brand they loved and pictures of their partners and closest friends.

Their physiological arousal to the logo was as intense as the arousal of looking at a picture of their closest friend.

Things—and by extension, brands—are a huge part of who we are.

What I take away from this is to work really hard to figure out what is aspirational about my brand that my customers can identify with.

Brands that can create aspirational ways for their community to interact with them not only create social media opportunities but also the chance to move beyond likes into something lasting.

Why we share on social media

why we share

If we like talking about ourselves so much, what would make us share something of someone else’s?

Passing information on is an impulse that we’re hard-wired with. Just the thought of sharing activates our brain’s reward centers, even before we’ve done a thing.

Self-presentation, strengthening relationships

First, it comes back to our own self image: 68% of people say they share to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about.

But the biggest reason we share is about other people: 78% of people say they share because it helps them to stay connected to people.

strengthen relationships

Experiments have shown that the best predictors of contagious ideas in the brain are associated with the parts that focus on thoughts about other people.

This means content designed for social media doesn’t need to appeal to a large group or an average group. it just needs to appeal to a specific person.

Social currency

And when we share the right type of content, we gain social currency—our stock goes up. 62% of people say they feel better about themselves when people react positively to what they post on social media.

social currency

How can brands create social media currency? By having something interesting to say.

Jeff Goins wrote on our blog about this little-known research paper from the 1970s that attempts to create a unified theory of what makes something interesting.

The author, Murray Davis, says all interesting content is “an attack on the taken-for-granted world of their audience.”

attack the taken for granted

Like “the dress,” things that are interesting deny our assumptions in some way; they shake us up.

Why we like on social media

why we like

Facebook, with more than 2 billion monthly active users is a great example of a platform where people love to like. In fact, since Facebook implemented the “Like” button, it has been used more than 1.13 trillion times, with that number growing by the day.

We do this because we want to maintain relationships. When we favorite and like each other’s posts, we add value to the relationship, and reinforce that closeness.

We also create a reciprocity effect. We feel obliged to give back to people who have given to us, even in a small way. We want to even up the scales.

reciprocity

A sociologist sent Christmas cards to 600 random strangers and received 200 in return. That’s the power of reciprocity.

You see reciprocity on Instagram as well, where receiving a tag or direct message makes you feel compelled to send one back. And anytime you receive a like on your profile, you’ll probably feel a little pull to reciprocate in some way, whether it’s by sharing something in return, signing up for an email list, etc.

Why we comment

why we comment

Most marketers tend to think conversations with customers are hugely important. That engagement—interacting as much as possible—is what builds long-term advocacy.

So it’s surprising to find that customers don’t feel the same way. A survey of more than 7,000 consumers found that only 23% said they have a relationship with a brand. Of those who did, only 13% cited frequent interactions with the brand as a reason for having a relationship.

Consumers said shared values were a much bigger driver for a relationship than lots of interaction with a brand.

This is not to say that comments aren’t powerful. In fact, they can be incredibly so—there’s a phenomenon known as shared reality that says our whole experience of something is affected by if and how we share it with others.

85% of us say reading other people’s responses on a topic helps us understand and process information and events.

process information

This means comments actually have the power to change our minds, and science backs this up.

  • A study on news sites showed that comments that simply attack the author, with no facts at all, are enough to change our perception of a topic.
  • On the other hand, polite reviews – even when they’re negative – cause a brand to be seen as more honest and wholesome. Users were actually willing to pay about $41 more for a watch when they saw polite negative reviews than when the reviews were removed.

Basically, any comment about you, anywhere online, is to a consumer a reflection of what kind of company you are. It’s not exactly logical, but that’s how our brains work.

reflection

This means being actively engaged in the comments section of your blog and with the customer reviews of your product is crucial, not so much to the person you’re responding to but for everyone participating in the shared reality of comments and reviews.

Social media phenomena: Selfies, emoji and nostalgia

So far we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s interesting and unique about social media. Let’s dive deeper into a few intriguing phenomenon for marketers.

phenomena

Selfie craze

selfies

Historically, portraits have been about status, and controlling the way our image is perceived.

Today, they’re a way to figure out who we are. The “looking-glass self” is a psychological concept that says that we can never truly see ourselves—we need our reflection from others in order to understand who we are.

looking glass self

Selfies also work because we pay more attention to faces than we do to anything else.

Viewing faces can also create empathy. An experiment added headshots of patients into doctors’ files, and found that seeing photos of patients improved the way they treated patients.

For brands, there are many ways to harness the power of selfies—we’ve got a full breakdown here!

Power of emoji on social media

emoji

Most of us are not aware of it, but we mimic each others expressions in face-to-face conversation. This is emotional contagion, and it’s a big part of how we build connectedness.

Online, we recreate that crucial element of empathy using emoticons and emoji.

Today, 92% of people in the U.S. regularly use stickers, emoticons or emojis in their online communication, and 10 billion emoji are sent around the world every day.

The most popular emoji: ?

And there is a strong link between emoji use and social media power.

social media power

There are plenty of fun ways to incorporate emoji into your marketing campaigns. Brands like Ikea, Coca-Cola, Burger King and Comedy Central have even created their own branded emoji for their fans to share.

Evan Wray at Swyft Media, which has worked on many of these branded emoji campaigns, says users see these in a really unique way–as self-expression, not advertising.

branded emojis

Social media nostalgia

nostalgia

Sometimes social media—and life—moves so fast that we want things to slow down.

This is where nostalgia comes in, and this longing for the past can be an amazing strategy for modern social media marketing.

Nostalgia is universal across all cultures and it gives us a sense of social connectedness, feelings of being loved and protected.

universal nostalgia

That feeling makes us think different about money. When people are asked to think about the past, they’re more likely to give money to others and they’re willing to pay more for products.

nostalgia and money

These days we’re speeding up nostalgia and creating a bigger and bigger appetite for it.

So you don’t have to have hundreds of years of history to use nostalgia in your marketing. All you need is a time period that your target market is going to feel nostalgic about.

Urban Outfitters is now selling vintage Lisa Frank stickers and notebooks from the ’80s and ’90s. (Yes, the ‘90s are vintage—that’s how fast nostalgia moves now.)

lisa frank

You can use Facebook insights, demographic and persona information to pick the period and then weave nostalgic references through your writing or social media posts.

Social media emoji: The dark and light sides

If we’re going to talk about the psychology of social media, we can’t ignore the studies about its negative effects. Some say it’s making us more lonely, more isolated, more depressed.

And the science behind this is very real—with the caveat that social media doesn’t change us itself; it’s just an extension of our human tendencies. It turns it up a little.

Like social comparison: we all have a tendency to assess our worth by comparing ourselves to others.

social comparison

This can lead to feelings of insecurity—especially on Facebook, where we go to share our happiest, braggiest news. We’re constantly comparing ourselves against a stream of new babies, engagements, new jobs.

This isn’t just a Facebook issue; it happens on Instagram, where Instagram envy runs rampant, and on Pinterest, where a survey of 7,000 U.S. mothers revealed that 42 percent have “Pinterest stress”—they worry that they’re not crafty or creative enough.

pinterest stress

But social media can also unite us. If you’ve ever shared about a loss or a personal challenge on social media, you may have experienced the resounding support that can come from friends and even those you might not expect.

  • When we’re feeling insecure, turning to Facebook offers more comfort than any other type of self-affirmation activity.
  • And spending time using social networks is correlated with virtual empathy, which carries over into the real world.

Have you ever wondered why animals are so popular on social media?

An interviewer asked the Buzzfeed editors who work on these stories why animals go so viral, and they said it’s because these stories are often not really about animals at all. They often show humans at their best — rescuing, fostering, caring.

They said, “Our empathy for animals is us at our best.”

us at our best

Social media can gnaw at our insecurities and suck us in, but at its core, it’s about the good in the world: seeing it in ourselves, recognizing it in others, passing it on.

It allows us to get a little closer, a little more empathetic, a little nearer to who we truly want to be. Brands have the opportunity to connect with us if they’re willing to be human along with us – with all the messiness, anxieties and joys that comes with that.

How to listen: iTunes | Google Play | SoundCloud | Stitcher | RSS

Over to you!

I really enjoyed digging into the psychology of social media for Mozcon and for you here! I’d love to hear any thoughts this brings up for you in the comments. Meanwhile, you can check out the full presentation here:

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Wow, I feel you just condensed into one post everything that could be said in social media (actually, I would recommend breaking this down into multiple posts as it’s a bit long for a web read :)). I like your positive spin on most of what is related to social media. It does have a dark side, but I believe that’s because we’re as a society still trying to figure how to work with it. Feelings like envy and social comparison and projected self are things that existed long before social media, and have simply been exacerbated by it.
    There is one point that I would add to your great analysis: keeping in touch with people far away. I live in a country that is not where my family lives and my friends are spread around the planet, Facebook, although evil in it’s treatment of personal information, is a very effective way to keep in touch with everyone instead of going one by one.

    • Hey there, thanks so much for checking out the post! Yup, you’re right; it’s a bit long! I love your thoughts on how we’re still finding our way as a society with social media, so true!

  • This is super useful and fascinating too. I’ve never been a very active social media user on a personal level but I am trying to be more present on social media sites for business (I’m a writer). It’s easy to dismiss social media as frivolous and time sucking, but we don’t always realize that it does meet very deep emotional needs.
    This post delves deeply into the “why” of social media and explains its power in ways I never really thought about before. It gives me a lot of insight into how i, as a fiction writer, can use social media to connect with readers. Great post.

    • Really happy to hear that it was handy for you, CJ! It was really neat to think more about the psychological and sociological side of social media, asking the “why” questions is one of my favorite things to do. 🙂

  • Amazing post Courtney. So much here that I think the Evernote servers are taking a hit clipping so many stats. 😉

    Great to present this from the standpoint of what’s in it for the social media user. I’m currently looking at some of these behaviors from the standpoint of what they mean for businesses on social. This is a great help in seeing how the needs each is filling through social and how they differ.

    Thanks for all the effort you put into these wonderful posts. They very frequently become ongoing points of reference for me when helping to build social strategies or inspiration for blog posts.

    • Hey there Ben! Wow, sounds like a really neat topic you’re working on! It means so much to hear that our posts are helpful for you, we learn so much from researching and writing them!

  • Wow! This is a huge article Courtney! Massive research! Its amazing how digital technology has created many worlds where people mingle, scream, console, court, sell, buy, and everything in between. Probably the most stunning thing for me, is that social media has given a platform for people around the planet – whatever their race or culture – to share human connection.

    • Perfectly said; you’re spot-on, Gerald! I’m continuously amazed by that also, and to think that we’re still only a few years in! Who knows how our minds and relationships will change in the future…

  • Simply wonderful work – hat tip from us @follogro 🙂

  • “Social media can gnaw at our insecurities and suck us in, but at its core, it’s about the good in the world: seeing it in ourselves, recognizing it in others, passing it on.” I love this line. This is how I’ve always seen the online world and social media. As much as social media can bring out the worst in people, at the core it is about sharing the good.

  • Steven Klimek

    Really insightful work Courtney! I am really curious to pick your brain as to how you perceive some of these impacts to work in the long-run. I agree 100% in the power of social to help us understand each other–even some of your comments have referenced connection. But I wonder what the quality of these connections are when they are all made in a context of “evaluation”. The whole likes/hearts phenomena. Those are positive words that are discussed more than “dislike” or “no heart”…but essentially these things equate to having a judge-and-be-judged mentality as the norm. In that sense, I often wonder about the sincerity of “connection” that is created. It’s a fascinating topic and I would love to discuss more! And again, awesome article!

    • Ah, this is such a great point, Steven! Definitely agree there can be an element of social striving on social media (much like in life!). One really fascinating experiment that I didn’t manage to fit into my presentation was on what might happen if you removed all the numbers from Facebook that make us feel evaluated/competitive. Here’s a neat video about that project: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/facebook-without-the-numbers

  • Ollie Galdamez

    I loved every word in your article Courtney thank you so much for this!

  • Fantastic, Courtney! Thank you for sharing with us what you shared at Mozcon. Going to be Pocketing this one to read again. 🙂

    • Really happy to! Yup, it’s quite lengthy, Pocket feels like a great fit!

  • Excellent article. Very insightful and understandable with practical applications. Thank you. : )

  • Indeed!! This blend of psychology with social media actually gave me the reason as to why I or others were liking, sharing or posting certain contents. It too can go a long way in Social media marketing strategy! Many thanks…

  • Right on @courtneyseiter:disqus! Love this, always nice to see something different. 🙂

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  • Z Zoccolante

    Fantastic article! I so enjoyed this.

  • This was so fascinating, Courtney! Thank you for doing such fantastic research and sharing it with us. 🙂

    As I was reading, I was wondering if you were going to mention the studies regarding social media’s link to depression, loneliness, etc., but I have to agree with your general idea. Social media, like anything, can be a wonderful or a horrible thing, depending on how you use it. While I’ve certainly had those moments of “Instagram envy” and the like, at its core, social media for me has always been about connecting with people and sharing the good and wonderful things about life. Neat to see there’s lots of research to back that up!

    • I also sense that it’s not only how you use social media per se that will inform whether its usage correlates with depression and loneliness but also how strong and healthy your self-image is independent of social media. I believe this is to what @paulaboylan:disqus is referring but I might be making incorrect connections? 🙂

  • Hi Courtney….great post 🙂 Interesting insights backed up with social science findings. As a Change Management practitioner, I see so many in my practice who suffer because societal influences (brand connection, the sense everyone out there is happier and more successful than you are…based on Facebook posts etc…), cause real angst. I believe the “looking glass self” concept is very real, but we must first know and like the self before basing our whole self image on what others in a social media world reflect back to us.

  • Melissa

    This was so insightful and fascinating! I love the sociology behind social media.

  • Dr. Anowar Hossain

    Now the question is how the social media can used safely not to harm to thousands of young and innocent old people worldwide!!!!!

  • I learn so much on social media. just a click, just a share, puts my words into other places I’d never reach. Also, I see and read and discover people because someone I know tweeted or shared or liked. It’s really quite awesome.

  • Mohan S

    Courtney, you deserve kudos for the effort you put into observing, analyzing and elucidating such a complex subject and coming out with a virtual ‘d-it-yourself’ kind of a guide/manual for anyone that is interested in exploring and making an impression on social media…

  • Great Post!

  • This is rather brilliant. I feel that many of these observations have been made in various contexts but this article really pulls together the entire dynamical ecosystem of social media and grounds it in brain science.

    I’m re-reading carefully now and thinking about how this may apply to my own work.

  • Very good, concise post. I use social media, but there is an undertow of feeling drained if I linger more than 20 minutes to post, share and give positive feedback. It is still not as satisfying as actual encounter. And for me, never will be.

  • @courtneyseiter:disqus Wow! What a great and completely thorough analysis of the psychology of social media. I love it! I love the way social media connects me to friends around the globe. I love finding new friends with similar interests. The one thing that makes this very popular outlet difficult is that many people prefer social media chatting or visiting to real person to person interaction. I’m old school and I need people, face to face. I like to feel people’s energy, vibe and to touch a hand, shoulder in empathy. You just can’t get that over a computer or smart phone. Plus we all need hugs! Real hugs and not just emoji hugs, although those are nice too! 🙂

  • vig

    heh Courtney. great article. i however have such an amusement n attraction to quit social media. any words of advice? thank u!

  • Adam Gray

    Wow, amazing post!