Understanding why people participate and share via social media has been a hot topic in academic circles for a while.  There is quite a large literature stream dedicated to the subject – later in the blog we look at a recent study by Harvard University.  I’ve also often asked my students why they post what they do on social media.  This has often been met with a little hostility and sometimes bemusement – apparently it’s not just me that doesn’t post their full daily itinerary with thought narrative on Facebook.  Hurrah!

Notwithstanding my personal loathing on posting private and often heartfelt emotional information on social media, it does happen – constantly!  I’m fighting the urge to take a few screenshots of the best ‘you really shouldn’t have posted that’ posts from my feeds – but I won’t. 

So, why do people post their innermost thoughts on social media (for the world to see)?

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Way back in the day - 2004 to be precise, Ridings and Gefen found that people participate in virtual communities for six reasons: (1) exchange information, obtain and transfer information about a topic, (2) social support, obtain and give emotional support, (3) friendship, to make friends, (4) recreation, for entertainment, (5) common interest, love the topic of the community and (6) technical reasons, technical features in the community.  However friendship was the main motivating factor for participating.  I can see that.  I understand that.  People post because of friendship, exchange information and provide emotional support.  Sure.

Moving onto the millennials debate – they are more open and lack privacy and security issues.  Now if you believe the age based demographic on the millennials concept, I would be a millennial.  Clearly I am not open and do not lack security and privacy concerns – I’d rather give my left arm than post my ‘feelings’ on social media.  Obviously I am not including blogging (for professional reasons) in this…

Does this really help with understanding why people post their thoughts and feelings on social media?  A little.  We begin to see a picture forming – we like make friends, we seek information and we like to give and receive emotional support (a little bit of self-gratification).  But.  We still don’t really understand the emotional and physiological benefits/responses of posting our lives on social media.

Researchers at Harvard University (Tamir and Mitchell) have begun to fill this gap.  Disclosing information about ourselves is shown to be intrinsically rewarding.  The study was completed in two parts.  First participants were hooked up to an MRI machine and asked to answer questions about their own opinions and questions about other people’s opinions while their brain activity was monitored.  In the second part, the researchers explored how important it was to have an audience to the self-disclosure.

The research found that the brain regions associated with reward -- the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA) -- were strongly engaged when people were talking about themselves, and less engaged when they were talking about someone else.

To put that into context, the researchers found that the act of disclosing information about ourselves activates the same sensation of pleasure in the brain that we get from eating food, receiving money or having sex.  Clearly there will be varying degrees but the results from the MRI scans indicate that our brain considers self-disclosure to be rewarding.  In this study, participants would even turn down money to talk about someone else, finding more pleasure in talking about themselves.

Exploring if self-disclosure was rewarding because you get to think about yourself or if it requires an audience, the research found that we get a greater reward when we share thoughts with friends and family than when they were told their thoughts would be kept secret. 

So, we share to feel good.  Tamir said: ‘I think it helps us explain why Twitter exists and why Facebook is so popular, because people enjoy sharing information about each other’. 

We are intrinsically motivated to share our thoughts and lives with others.  I suppose it’s the same offline, we share our lives and thoughts with friends.  The difference is the number of people we can reach with that ‘thought’ on social media and the fact that it’s written down, in a picture, audio or video.  Either way we share because we receive pleasure rewards. 

I’m now mentally trying to explore the pleasure rewards I got with writing this blog… And you can read a copy of the paper here.