How Facebook Keeps Us Coming Back

So many friends.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud or an evolutionary biologist to figure out that there is something about Facebook that resonates deeply in our psyches and in our lizard brains. New research is attempting to identify and document how this works — and what it means for the rest of us trying to connect with the public.

The fact that people accumulate friends and family members and then post and watch countless photos and videos feels very primal and tribal. As we build our social networks, we exercise the passive aspect of our flight-or-fight instincts, meaning that as we add “friends,” we’re constantly monitoring them for signs of friendship or aggression — and unfriending those who fail the test.

Recent survey data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that individuals extend their introvert or extrovert tendencies and play out predictable gender roles in social media.

Twenty to thirty percent of Facebook users are “power users.” It’s they who create the most content, post most frequently, “like” most aggressively, and comment on or tag pictures and posts most often. Only 5% of the Facebook user base does all of these things. For the majority, Facebook is mainly a passive activity in which they get more than they give.

The Pew folks found that

  • 63% of users got a friend request but only 40% made one.
  • The average person hit “Like” 14 times/month, but his or her posts or other content were “Liked” by others 20 times a month.
  • Users got an average of 12 messages, but sent only 9.
  • There are 2.5 times more comments than status updates.
  • 35% of users were tagged in photos, but only 12% tagged a friend in their photos.
  • Women updated their status 3 times more often than men

It seems as if most people want to watch, listen, and see without too much of an investment of time or emotion.

The average Facebook user has 245 friends. The average number of “friends of friends” is 359, and each person’s friend list is only loosely connected. There’s a mere 12% overlap when friends are matched against their friends’ friends.

Still, 80% of friend requests were reciprocated, and fewer than 5% of Facebook users “unfriend” somebody. Most of us seem satisfied to link ourselves to the more popular kids in the class and watch them do their thing. Facebook feels a lot like high school in that respect.

Facebook also appears to be a habit leading to addiction for a segment of the user base. Psychologist Wilhelm Hofman of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago wired up 205 people in Wurzburg, Germany, and quizzed them 7 times a day for 14 days to see what they were doing and feeling. He found that Facebook and Twitter are more addictive and harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes but — perhaps luckily for our survival as a species — not as desirable as sleep or sex.

Hofman speculates that social media’s addictiveness is hard to resist because the cost (in time or emotion) is so small. “Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of the high availability and also because it feels like it doesn’t ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities even though one wants to resist.” Facebook’s allure gets harder to resist as the day goes on, which may account for its heavy popularity in the evening and night.

A full 40% of women polled by Lightspeed-Oxygen Media admit to being Facebook “addicts.” One in three check Facebook before they brush their teeth or wash their face in the morning. One in four checks Facebook in the middle of the night — or falls asleep with a phone or tablet in hand.

Facebook means you never have to be alone. Facebook insures you always have someone to talk to and something to see and react to. Facebook is so personalized that it borders on being narcissistic. On Facebook, you can brag, rant, pose, emote, share, give out TMI, and act out in ways that your real friends and family might not tolerate. And while many users voice privacy concerns about Facebook, a kind of cognitive dissonance is at play, in which people persist in posting all kinds of intimate thoughts, feelings, and pictures, even though they must know that none of it’s private.

It’s one of the very few experiences that almost always delivers on expectations. A Facebook session always includes something that each individual cares about. It’s much more reliable and friendly than most real friends. Facebook reaffirms connections to clan, tribe, class, and community. Facebook might just be the antidote to existential loneliness.

The implication for brands is clear. Be human. Try to connect with each person individually. Tap the egocentric in all of us, the longing for company and the sense of community, and the feeling of inclusiveness that speaks deeply to us and keeps us coming back.

[Image: Luc Legay/Flickr]

About this Gun

Danny Flamberg

Danny Flamberg

is Managing Director for Digital & CRM Strategy at the Kaplan Thaler Group. A veteran marketing strategist, he was previously Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, Senior Vice President at Digitas and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide. Follow @flamster.