Why we like to share on social media

social media

Who is it really for, when you share pictures of your party, your dancing children or your pretty cupcakes on social media? Is it for your friends and family, or is it really just for you? Jocelyn de Kwant asked herself this question.

“Most people share videos and photos because they really love sharing a nice experience,” explains Dutch media psychologist Mischa Coster. “But in the background, all kinds of processes are taking place that also influence your behavior. The human need for social approval, for example. A need for confirmation. Often it’s subconscious, 
but it does play a role.”

“Coster explains that getting ‘likes’ generates a small dopamine boost in your body, and that creates a nice feeling. “The remarkable thing is that the anticipation of getting ‘likes’ produces a higher level of euphoric hormones than actually getting them, so that no matter what happens the reality is always a bit disappointing,” he says. “And there are more mind games like that going on behind the scenes.”

Just Like Vegas

People are social animals, and social media provides for a social need, Coster says. We don’t even think about it very much. But if you engage with these media full on, you can even become dependent on those ‘likes’ and may need them to feel good about yourself. Then people will do things, purely for the sake of the picture. Young people in particular are vulnerable to this, but adults are not immune either.

Cal Newport, an American professor of computer science, does not use social media at all. He is of the opinion that being on social media is more than an innocent pastime. In a TED Talk, Newport says, “…many of the major social media companies hire individuals called attention engineers who borrow principles from Las Vegas casino gambling, among other places, to try to make these products as addictive as possible. That is, the desired use case of these products is that you use it in an addictive fashion, because that maximizes the profit that can be extracted from your attention and data.”

He also refers to American computer philosophy writer Jaron Lanier, who believes “that these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bites of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.”

It is also called the attention economy: Every tweet, every ‘like’, every share is worth money. The data is used for marketing purposes or even to obtain political influence. Newport believes we are giving away our private life and our attention to hard-nosed profit models that do not have our best interests at heart.

According to him, it’s a misunderstanding to think that you need social media, or that you’ll be missing out if you don’t go on them, or that you’re not moving along with the times if you do not use them. “I think I’ve been more successful professionally because I don’t use social media,” he says. “Social media is not a fundamental technology […]. It’s a source of entertainment, it’s an entertainment product. And if you look a little bit closer at these technologies, it’s not just that they’re a source of entertainment, but they’re a somewhat unsavory source of entertainment.”

  • The complete story ‘Why share’ can be found in Issue 27

Text Jocelyn de Kwant Photography Hanke Arkenbout