At a party a few years ago, a friend turned to me and in all seriousness stated that he would rather be at home on Facebook than catching up with some of his closest friends offline. Since I hadn't signed up for the network yet, I had no idea what he was talking about. He nearly burst as he raved about “Liking” and “Poking” (remember that feature?). But he was on to something. Despite its further technologizing our experience, two new studies have found that the social network satisfies basic human desires, both body and soul.
According to recent research, Facebook literally makes us feel good. In a study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Mauri et al. (2011) found that the network may owe some of its success to the positive state it conjures up in its users. The scientists recorded an array of responses in 30 healthy subjects during a three-minute exposure to (a) a relaxation condition (a slideshow of nature scenes), (b) a stress condition (a timed test and a mathematical task), and (c) the subject's personal Facebook account. Participants' skin conductance, blood volume pulse, brainwave patterns, muscle activity, breathing activity, and pupil dilation were measured.
The researchers found that the pattern of biological signals while using Facebook produced a psychophysiological state that was distinct from the relaxation and stress conditions. The findings also revealed that these biological signals are in concert with what they call a Core Flow State, which is characterized by “high positive valence and high arousal.” With respect to Facebook usage, flow is an “optimal experience” that users enjoy and want to repeat. The investigators further suggest that the successful spread of social networking sites may be associated with a specific cluster of positive emotional states that people feel while using their account.
Turning to the mind, Nadkarni and Hofmann (2012) investigated the psychological factors that drive Facebook usage. Their review of the research found that two primary social needs motivate using the site. The first need is the fundamental desire to belong. Humans are designed to connect with others as well to feel accepted by them. Facebook has been found to promote connections in two steps (Sheldon et al., 2011). Feeling disconnected initially motivates individuals to use the site (essentially as a coping mechanism), and in turn, the more they use it the more connections they gain. The second striving Facebook responds to is self-presentation, in which users fashion ideal — rather than accurate — versions of themselves through their profiles. This is manifest in, for example, the number of “friends” in their network and photographs. As such, Facebook personas that are presented online may be a more socially appealing “self” that is aspired to in reality, but one that is not yet realized (Zhao et al., 2008). The authors also note that these two needs can act together or independently to motivate using the network.
It would seem that maintaining relationships in the modern world is more challenging than ever, with our communities dissolving and increasing numbers of people living alone. What a delightful irony that the more technological our lives become, it is still driven toward our primal and inescapable need to connect with others.
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Mauri, M., Cipresso, P., Balgera, A., Villamira, M., and Riva, G. (2011). Why Is Facebook So Successful? Psychophysiological Measures Describe a Core Flow State While Using Facebook. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14 (12).
Nadkarni, A. & Hofmann, S. G. (2012). Why do people use Facebook? Personality and Individual Differences, Vol.52(3), Feb 2012, pp. 243-249.
Sheldon, K. M., Abad, N., & Hinsch, C. (2011). A two-process view of Facebook use and relatedness need-satisfaction: Disconnection drives use, and connection rewards it. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 100, 766-775.
Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., and Martin, J.. (2008). Identity Construction on Facebook: Digital Empowerment in Anchored Relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 24. 1816-1836.