For who can bear to feel himself forgotten? – W. H. Auden
Much of what we share has to do with fulfilling our need to express ourselves. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, approximately 70 percent of our daily conversations revolve around our social relationships and personal experiences.
We can attribute much of the daily content that we are exposed to online as published daily self-expressions. Technology heightens our already inherent desire to form and foster social relationships with others. What many report, is that social media provides a less threatening way to communicate our personal experiences. Social media can effectively mediate many of our concerns that may manifest themselves during face-to-face exchanges.
Moreover, these daily-published expressions contribute to our own personal story. Each selfie, concert photos and job-search updates contribute to building a narrative. We want others to see us as we see ourselves.
Similarly, sharing affects our self-esteem. Not only is the act of disclosure shown to increase positive feelings, but also sharing gives us a perceived sense of support and place in the world. This simple act fulfills our need for attachment and comfort. The idea that posting self-expressions contributes to an improved sense of well-being is supported by current literature that examines posting as therapy. What many have found, is that even the perception of possible positive feedback, is enough to contribute to our well-being.
With that in mind, I would posit sharing content online fulfills both our need to exist in the world around us and as a means to manage exactly how we exist. We achieve this sense, or it is reinforced, by actual feedback (retweets, likes, comments), or the space we believe we inhabit in ecosystem of others’.
Need to Exist
Research conducted by The New York Times found that most people share information about themselves to feel more involved in the world. We can attribute this to personal declarations, water cooler fodder and all of the #FOMOs, #TBTs and #FridayFeelings.
In one way, existence is reinforced by feedback. The simple idea of feedback fuels both our desire, and reinforcement, of sharing behavior. Feedback, or the potential for feedback, contributes to the fulfillment of our socio-affective needs. When we share online we can essentially meet these needs immediately.
What a number of studies suggest is that many people share content to entertain others, or to evoke an emotional response. I do not believe it is too much to extend that these actions can be internalized as a mechanism for easy feedback. Feedback lets individuals know that people recognize them. The more emotional, divisive or culturally relevant the expression is, the more likely the feedback. There is a podcast floating around out there that dissects teenagers’ strategic use of social media. Many go so far as to remove content entirely that doesn’t receive enough attention. I was fascinated at the length the students interviewed would go to prove other people saw their posts.
Similarly, products (or brands) are used as a mechanism for self-expressions. Much of the literature points to our desire to provide pertanent information, as it relates to brands or products, as a reason to share. More current work shows that we often over share to compensate for a perceived disconnect between our current self and desired self. For example, we may over-share to symbolically compensate for own perceived deficiencies, meaning we actively seek validation, or recognition (existence), for what we share.
How We Manage our Existence
Much of what happens on social media, and is often spurred by social media, is gossip. I believe that we share not only for personal fulfillment, but we want to manage what others might use to gossip about us. This moves beyond self-enhacement as a motive to share.
Gossip: Idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.
We share with the belief that what we post will ultimately fuel various gossip circles. Not only do we imagine what others might say, but we actively seek to manage it. This is why pictures must be taken perfectly.
From an evolutionary perspective, language evolved to allow us to manage a large number of social relationships. Much of what we have come to understand about gossip is a result of grooming relationships among apes and monkeys. Both offer an understanding of humans as social beings. While grooming initially gives an entity a sense of comfort and commitment, social gossip allows us to “co-ordinate our social relationships with a group more effectively.” Gossip provides those engaged in conservations a sense of shared knowledge.
Because we post with specific audiences in mind, I believe that we ultimately understand how social media conversations can be framed, and actually fit within the networks we perceive our message to be viewed in. boyd and others have described this as the imagined audience.
A clear example is the tension we often feel between presenting an authentic self and a more interesting self. We often struggle with presenting our ideal reality. A way navigate, or manage this, is to strategically create content that we believe will live up to the expectations of both.
A easy example would be babies on Instagram. We post pictures that depict the perfect environment we want our child to inhabit. We do this knowing that our child will not live out the next month in a $50 bonnet. The scenery, the clothes, the positioning are all employed to help build this reality. What we share helps us to bridge both concerns.
We are able to feel that we exist by presenting our daily escapades to a myriad of audiences. As Shaun Moores wrote: “this potential pluralization of relationships also raises some further issues with the presentation of self or with performing identity in and across multiple social realities” (2004, p.32). Our need to exist and exist over multiple realities (or audiences) drives sharing, and raises identity-related concerns. We seek to address these “issues” by strategically creating or sharing specific content. This can be attributed to the 211 million bits of content published every minute.