The psychology of social media: the real reasons we ‘like’ on Facebook

To get a grasp on social media engagement, digital marketers keep up with the ever-evolving algorithms that determine how and when content is seen, and by whom. We experiment with social channels to figure out what makes our communities respond, to discover optimal frequency and times to post.

It’s one thing to get your content in front of people at the right moment, but to trigger them to engage we’ve got to look beyond the tactical to the psychological and ask: why? What motivates humans to like, share and comment?

A recent 2017 study is among the first to examine the why specifically looking at what prompts someone to hit the like button on Facebook. The social network estimated in 2013 that users click like around 6.7 billion times each day, a number that’s sure to be even higher today. Understanding the motivations behind this simple act, one that is so fundamental to the platform is important for marketers.

The study involved one-on-one interviews with students aged 18-29, the most prolific users of Facebook. Questions centred on their recent Facebook activity, specifically the reasons they liked certain posts. The findings revealed three key motivations for liking a Facebook post.

  1. To acknowledge the gratifications obtained with the use of Facebook

Researchers distinguish between the gratifications sought (GS) by users of social media and the gratifications obtained (GO) through social media interactions. By coding the types of words students used to describe their reasons for liking a post, four ‘gratified usage motives’ were identified:

Entertainment: words like ‘fun’ or ‘funny’ are used to describe posts that satisfy a desire to be entertained. Film, music and television are obvious topics, but content featuring satirical humour or hobbies important to the also gratified the entertainment need. Entertainment is also derived from certain interactions with peers: say when friends playfully tease or joke with the user.

Information/discovery: a post that’s informative or has significance to the user’s community falls into this category. The types of words used to describe these types of posts might centre on a sense of importance or patriotism.

Self-identification: this is when we find common ground with the content—these posts connect with something in our own lives. Suppose a friend posts a rant about the difficulty of having broadband connected… it reminds you of the hell your telecommunications company put you through when you moved. Like.

Bonding: given Facebook’s essential premise of connecting people, it’s little surprise to see bonding as a gratification motivation. A friend or family member in a photo can prompt a like, or we may use it as a way to offer support or congratulations for an achievement or milestone.

  1. To share information with others

Facebook users know other people are made aware of their actions. When they hit like, the original poster is notified, other users can see that like on the post and Facebook might repost a like in an individual’s story. This means we choose our social media likes deliberately, with the intention of ‘sharing’ a post (as opposed to using the ‘share’ function) to others in our network. Researchers found three underlying reasons behind the like as a means to share.

Presentation of the self: when we like posts that help communicate things that are important to us and present a picture of who we are.

Presentation of the extended-self: when we seek to make a personal connection with someone or something—a place, object or group. It indicates like-minded thinking to the original poster.

Social obligations: when we like a post that is seen to be good for other people or for the community at large. These likes help satisfy our sense of responsibility or our morals and values.

By sharing aspects of ourselves through what we like, we consciously and sub-consciously seek to influence how we want others to see us, to present a particular version of ourselves to the world. Everyone knows a wellness-focussed friend who likes motivational quotes, organic recipes and yoga photos. Someone who fancies themselves as a social justice warrior might like political news stories, Get Up petitions and protest event invites.

There are two main reasons we share with likes: self-promotion or self-preservation. The former is when we ‘put ourselves out there’ and interact with content that could be seen in a negative light—like the social justice warrior liking a controversial political post. Self-preservation is more a ‘play it safe’ strategy, where we stick with cat memes rather than content that might expose our political, social or religious affiliations.

  1. As a tool for impression management

We use Facebook to influence people’s impression of us and the like button plays a role in how we manage this impression. While sharing a post on our own wall is considered a Big Deal because it must represent us and appeal to our social network, the like function lets us interact with posts that don’t reflect us fully or to engage with content that risks creating a negative perception of us. This protective self-management stems from a desire to maintain social approval. In other words, Facebook users tend not to deviate too much from what they deem safe—we prefer not to be too closely associated with controversy or content that doesn’t fit how we want to be seen.

So what are the real-world implications and applications of these insights for digital marketers and social media managers? By developing an understanding of how a customer wishes to be seen by their peers, brands can serve content designed to reinforce desirable perceptions and improve the likelihood of that customer engaging with such a post. By extension, such an approach has the power to positively impact brand perception—after all, a customer is likely to feel a greater affinity with a brand that gratifies their social media motivations than one that doesn’t.

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