Theoretical Explanations of Social Media Use
Social Capital Theory
Proponents of social capital theory claim that individuals have a natural tendency to interact with other members of society and build functioning networks that usually result in physical, informational, financial, or other forms of gains for all members. 1
Although in general the term social network is associated with homogenous groups with strongly knit ties, Granovetter’s famous study2 “The Strength of Weak Ties” made it clear that weak connections within a network might actually be more beneficial and boost social capital. There can be two different types of social capital one can gain from social networks:
- Bonding social capital: Gained by forming networks with strong ties. These kinds of networks tend to include close family members and close friends.
- Bridging social capital: Gained by forming networks with weak ties. These kinds of networks tend to include distant family members and distant friends.
Facebook can help people turn latent ties into weak ties, thus creating social capital.3 The platform is also used for bridging among distant friends and bonding among close friends, which can also be considered emotional support.4 It was found that there is a positive correlation between number of friends on Facebook and social capital building, in addition to the positive relationship between social wellbeing and the amount of Facebook use.4
Facebook can expand social capital because it can both supplement and substitute (in case people with strong ties are geographically dispersed) face-to-face relationships and enable bonding in different circumstances. 5
However, usage intensity is not necessarily related to social provisions such as alliance, guidance, and attachment. Similarly, bridging is more common with close friends rather than distant friends, as usually the opposite is expected from Facebook use.3
Diffusion of Innovations (DOI) Theory
According to Everett Rogers, who coined the name, diffusion of new ideas, services, and products follows a course of five stages, and each innovation must have five key characteristics. The stages of the decision to adopt an innovation are knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation.
Additionally, in order for an innovation to reach the critical mass, it must be relatively advantageous, compatible, simple, observable, and triable.
In 2010, Coursaris and his colleagues7 successfully applied DOI theory to the adoption of Twitter by college students and university staff. They observed that individual innovativeness, along with perceived compatibility, visibility, and popularity significantly predicted Twitter usage among the sample.
Studies also found a link between compatibility, relative advantage, complexity, and ease of trying with interest in social networking.8 A study 9 that investigated how Internet applications spread among college students via Facebook recommendations concluded that word of mouth and passive observation have the same level of impact on the adoption of innovation.
Similar to two-step flow theory, DOI emphasizes the importance of influentials and proposes that endorsements from opinion leaders and innovators are crucial during the early stages of innovation. In other words, DOI suggests that innovations have the optimum chance of being spread if early adopters or an early majority consists of influential people.
To date, a number of studies have attempted to identify influencers on Twitter. 11,12 It became apparent that opinion leaders do not use online social networks in the same way as regular users. After surveying 451 college students, researchers12 concluded that opinion leaders tend to share more brand information but spend less time on Facebook.
Uses & Gratification (U&G) Theory
People’s media choices depend on the social or psychological needs that they want to satisfy at any given moment13 which can be classified in to the following five categories:
- Cognitive needs: information gathering, surveillance, understanding of the environment
- Affective needs: aesthetics, emotional experiences
- Personal integrative needs: confidence-building, credibility
- Social integrative needs: relationships with friends and family
- Tension-release needs:14 escapism, diversion
It is also known that one’s personality can predict the priority of these needs. For instance, neuroticism usually increases the preference for violent TV programming and content that satisfies tension-release needs (things related to escape from reality and diversion). By the same token, people with high levels of openness to new experiences seek more entertaining activities.15
Additionally, the theory posits that users actively seek out and select different media channels based on their personal characteristics and needs. As the theory suggests, major individual characteristics such as age16 and gender17 are known to influence social media use.
Whether people actively or passively use social media also depends on “innovativeness,” a personal characteristic that sets users apart.18 In the same vein, gender and personal traits determine what benefits are sought from online social networks19.
Supporting this view, a recent study also found that the way people watch and share YouTube videos depends on what kind of personal tendencies they have, such as locus of control, thrill-seeking, and disinhibition.20
When it comes to Facebook, many studies refer to U&G theory to explain the motivations of use of the platform.21 For instance several focus-group studies showed that the major driver of social network usage was to gratify one’s need for socialization.22
A study revealed that Facebook and Myspace were used to satisfy five major social needs:
- efficient and convenient communication
- desire for popularity
- relationship building; and
- relationship maintenance. 22
Another scholar identified similar needs with different names,16 as:
- social network surfing
- social investigation
- social connection
- shared identities; and
- content and status updating
The three additional dimensions of human motives to use Facebook23 are:
- diversion – passing the time, taking a break, escapism
- personal motives – self-presentation, impression management; and
- informational motives – information-seeking, information-sharing, surveillance, social investigation, social sneaking
Twitter’s continuance7 was also explained by uses and gratifications theory: perceived diversion and relaxation in addition to mobile accessibility can explain whether the users will quit.
Social Presence and Media Richness Theories
Social presence theory posits that media channels that increase one’s social presence are more effective.24 In general, interactive and visual information cues increase social presence while non-interactive and textual cues decrease social presence.
The three major dimensions of social presence are:
- social context – familiarity with recipients, formality and informality of relationships, and user characteristics
- online communication – computer literacy, degree of nonverbal communication capability of the platform, etc.
- interactivity – synchronous or asynchronous communication, length of messages, size of groups, and types of tasks 24
Similar to social presence theory, media richness theory suggests that media channels that allow us to use multiple information cues (audio, video, etc.) provide immediate feedback, and send personalized messages are richer and thus more effective. 25 The theory presumes that users will always choose a richer media channel over more primitive media channels to transfer their messages.
Both social presence and media richness theories postulate that face-to-face communication is the richest form of communication as shown in the following figure: 25
Impression Management Theory
In 1959, Erving Goffman published a book26 about self-presentation and argued that our lives are not different than theatrical performances where we “act” to control, maintain, or create images based on the audiences we interact with.
Different from a theater stage, audience members may be imaginary and the actors may or may not receive immediate feedback from the audience. Acting occurs during the first impressions but they are extended to all parts of our lives.
The following excerpt provides a summary of Goffman’s thoughts:
When an individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have. Sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain. Sometimes the individual will be calculating in his activity but be relatively unaware that this is the case. Sometimes he will intentionally and consciously express himself in a particular way, but chiefly because the tradition of his group or social status require this kind of expression and not because of any particular response (other than vague acceptance or approval) that is likely to be evoked from those impressed by the expression. Sometimes the traditions of an individual’s role will lead him to give a well-designed impression of a particular kind and yet he may be neither consciously nor unconsciously disposed to create such an impression.– Goffman, 1959. “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (page 7)
In addition to Goffman’s doctrine that all social agents must have a congruent and consistent public image, it is claimed27 that people commonly use the following techniques as part of impression management:
- ingratiation – trying to be likeable by complimenting others or helping others
- self-promotion/enhancement – focus on individual achievements and competences
- supplication – to appear weaker in order to get help from others
- conformity – acting in a way or saying things according to social norms
- self-monitoring – paying attention to the positive feedback from others
We know that from the early age of the Internet people have been building personal web pages for self-promotion.28 Research29 also confirmed that people actively try to maintain a positive image on Facebook in order to get different kinds of support, including:
Although another study found that this is mostly true for people who have low self-esteem and score high on narcissism.30
Social Movements Theory
Social movements33 driven by collective action are heavily impacted by public framing of the movements and the mobilization of resources (time, money, staff, volunteers, information, etc.) needed by the participants.
Framing in particular—building public and media support, creating a sense of community and solidarity, reflecting an image of a movement formed by many different sections of society, etc.—plays a huge role in the success of social movements.
Nowadays “social media technologies have been used especially in organizing and implementing collective activities, promoting a sense of community and collective identity among marginalized group members, creating less-confined political spaces, establishing connections with other social movements, and publicizing causes to gain support from the global community.”34 (page 1207).
An analysis of social media messages sent during the Egyptian revolution showed that social media not only helped the mobilization of people and information but also stimulated the protesters, who received sympathy and encouragement through social media from those who were far away.34
Similarly, the way social media was utilized by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators35 clearly showed that social movements theory can explain why social media is heavily used by activists.
During the protests, resource mobilization was achieved by locally targeted (geotagged) tweet messages (e.g., where people could find food, tents, etc.), and public support was built by the rest of the messages that are sent to the national audience.
Clay Shirky’s piece in Foreign Affairs36 explains in more detail why social media eases mobilization of resources:
Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. The anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines used the ease of sending and forwarding text messages to organize a massive group with no need (and no time) for standard managerial control.
As a result, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns that were previously reserved for formal organizations. For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls “shared awareness,” the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too.
Social media increases shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks. The anti–Aznar protests in Spain gained momentum so quickly precisely because the millions of people spreading the message were not part of a hierarchical organization.(p. 7)– Shirky, 2011. “Political Power of social Media-Technology, The Public Sphere, and Political Change.” Foreign Affairs.
Similar to cognitive dissonance theory, self-affirmation theory proposes that people in general strive to maintain their self–confidence by engaging in activities that affirm their self–identities and increase their perception of self–worth.37
A study from Cornell University32 provided empirical evidence to the two main axioms of the theory by analyzing Facebook users. The findings concluded that
- a) exposure to one’s own Facebook profile right after a threat is likely to reduce one’s self-defensives, and
- b) people are likely to spend more time on Facebook when their egos are threatened.
The author explained the findings with the self-affirming nature of Facebook profiles.
Herding, Information Cascade & Social Influence
Although there are many other theories that can help us understand social media, we must know what herding is to get a good sense of why some strange things like the Harlem Shake are happening on the Internet.
Herding, a term derived from zoology, simply means mimicking others’ behavior without any active cognitive engagement. It is defined as “the alignment of the thoughts or behaviours of individuals in a group (herd) through local interaction and without centralized “coordination.” 38 Herding is also related to information cascade: one’s following the behavior of the majority by ignoring his/her own information and preferences.39
Information cascade usually happens when things need to be decided in sequence. For instance, if a teacher asks each student one by one whether he or she wants the final exam to be held during the first or second semester, the answers of the first few students are pretty much likely to determine what the tenth student will say.
This may also happen randomly. If there are two restaurants that are empty and the first passerby chooses to go to restaurant A, the second passerby is more likely to go to restaurant A, and so on. At the end of the night the first restaurant may end up getting 30 customers while restaurant B closes empty.
40 Completely random and strange memes can go viral on the Internet just because people thoughtlessly copy others. Some scholars claim that herding is related to an animal instinct: when animals escape from predators, each member of the herd moves with the rest of the herd and tries to be as close as possible to the center to be safe. 41
Other scholars point to mirror neurons, brain cells that make us empathize with others and mimic others’ activities 38 (e.g., when someone yawns, we start yawning uncontrollably). Psychologists refer to the norm of conformity as a source of social influence; we do what majority does because acting this way holds the society together, strengthens our bonds with the rest of our social group, and makes our lives easier. 42
Social conformity can be hugely influenced by our culture, as people in collective cultures conform more and are more careful, about acting according to social norms. Two years ago, we conducted an experiment among Japanese respondents in which people were asked what they would have done if they had found $10,000 on the street.
One group saw a board displaying most of the previous respondents’ answers as “I would take it to the police.” People in the second group were seven times more likely to give the socially unacceptable answer “I would take it” after seeing the majority had done so. 42
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