Motivation and Content Creation in Online Social Networks

Authors: Zac Taschdjian Amanda Porter, Stephen Butler, Kate Starbird

NOTE: This paper was written for Gerhard Fisher’s “Soci0-technical systems” graduate class sometime around 2007

Abstract: There have been papers published on social networking sites, but there are relatively few that address the issues of motivation and social benefit through participation. We explore the literature and theoretical underpinnings on the motivations to join and contribute content to social networking sites. In addition, an online survey of two popular social networking sites, Facebook and MySpace showed a correlation between the motivations of community members regarding social capital, communication, and identity formation. Our findings support and further previous research on social networking, and points to the need to expand research to include other user motivations and other social networks.

Keywords: social networking, social capital, online communication, motivation, computer-mediated communication

Statement of the Problem: We framed our initial problem as investigating the motivations for contributing to online social and educational environments. We initially considered communities like Facebook, MySpace, LearnHub, Friendster, and several Open Source Software projects. As the project progressed we narrowed our scope to focus exclusively on social networking sites, specifically Facebook, MySpace and. We also modified our goals to include determining motivations for content creation as well as participation. The questions we sought to address were, Why do individuals join these social networking sites? Why do they spend their time and energy creating and posting content for others to see? Our attempts to answers these questions increased our understanding and insight into the growing trend of digital and social systems. Rationale: Social networking (SN) sites have become indispensable in the lives of young people and are becoming increasingly important to people of all ages. The sites are designed for various types of communication among community members, whether they are friends, family, or relative strangers. Due to their ubiquity, especially among young people, academia has been interested in exploring the motivations behind their adoption and the impact these new communication channels are having throughout society. Why, for example, is MySpace losing members while Facebook grows? Though many papers have been published on the larger topic of social networking use, we found relatively few that addressed the issues of motivation and social benefit (or detriment) through participation. The best sources for related research are Ellison and Lampe who are continuing to produce research on the nature of SN usage and how it is changing over time. Additional rationale is contained in each section discussing our findings. This research touches on many themes. Understanding users’ motivations to participate in and contribute to online communities is critical to the successful development of e-learning, e-business, e-healthcare, e-government, and other digital and social systems. In particular, our research relates to chapter 5 of Schneiderman’s text, “Leonardo’s Laptop”. This chapter investigates human activities and relationships. Schneiderman presents a four level relationship scheme: self, family and friends, colleagues and neighbors, and citizens and markets. These levels of relationship engage in four activity types: collection, creation, relation, and donation. While Schneiderman seeks to relate these activities to the web as a whole, our research attempted to correlate these activities to the motivation and incentives that result in participation and content creation. Together, we decided on three target sites for our investigation: MySpace, Facebook, and Learnhub. We split up the investigation of sites with some overlap between observing site content, enumerating sites features, and developing user personas.

Methods: Our project aimed to supplement and extend the current body of research on the motivations for joining, participating in, and contributing to online social networking sites. We attempted to identify individuals’ perceived motivations as well as to theorize on their underlying motivations using the existing body of literature on social networking sites and through a survey instrument. Our project involved a variety of tasks across four main areas: gathering and evaluating theoretical sources and sources of literature, an examination of the selected social networking sites, survey design, and survey analysis. Gathering and Evaluating Literature: We explored communication theory, computer supported cooperative work, computer supported collaborative learning, and uses and gratification theory. Through our literature search and empirical research, we focused on social capital, identity creation, and communication. These topics were discussed in greater detail on assignment 7 and assignment 10; which can be found on the DSS class wiki. They will also be discussed in further detail in the section on individual findings.

Examination of Social Networking Sites: Facebook and MySpace are social networking websites designed to facilitate interaction between its community members. We explored what tools were available through these websites. Although we explored all functionality, our subsequent research focuses on the content creation tools. While Facebook and MySpace tend to be targeted towards different demographics they offer a lot of the same functionality; creation of a profile page about the community member, the ability to post comments, upload and display photos, alter temporary status information, and post other content including music, news articles, etc. How frequently were these tools being used? Why was one tool utilized over another? Why were these sites used instead of face-to-face interactions or phone calls? * Survey Design*: Survey data was collected through an electronic survey tool called Zoomerang ( The survey was designed to probe the motivations for joining and posting content on social networking sites. Individual surveys were created for the Facebook, MySpace, and LearnHub communities. Each survey consisted of basic demographic information on age, gender, education level, and computer skill level. The remaining focus of the survey gauged usage of the site through quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative questions were asked about time spent using the site and features within the site, number of friends or contacts within the site, and the frequency with which you modify various forms of content on the site. These quantitative questions allowed the subjects to click a button that represented the closest match to their experience. Qualitative questions were also asked in order to gain a deeper understanding of the motivations behind the subject’s actions. The open ended questions provided subjects with an on-screen text box which allowed them to write as much or as little as they deemed necessary. Questions included items such as: The last time you changed your status, what were your reasons? What would motivate you to start a community? What are your reasons for posting comments on other’s profile page? The open-ended responses were reviewed and coded by a minimum of two group members. This was done to ensure coding consistency. All group members discussed the resulting codes, literature based on those codes, and the implications of the findings.

The survey was based on a convenience sample of subjects as it was distributed through personal emails and electronic links in the researcher’s Facebook, MySpace, and LearnHub communities. As a result, the demographic information shows significant skews of age (16/41 were 30 or younger), education level (16/41 had a Master’s Degree), and gender (30/41 were female). Due to time constraints, limited distribution, and the survey’s focus we had significantly different levels of survey completion. Facebook had 36 visits to the survey, with 29 completed surveys (80.6%). MySpace had 22 visits to the survey, but only 12 completed surveys (54.5%) and LearnHub had 27 visits but only 8 completed surveys (29.6%). Due to the limited response rate from LearnHub, and its alternative social focus, we removed those results from our analysis. MySpace and Facebook accounted for a total of 41 completed surveys out of 58 visits. A completion rate of 70.7% for users who visited the survey sites. The themes of use and motivation show overlap with more in-depth research published over the last few years, but due to the limited sample size, the self selected subjects, and the skew of subject demographics; these results should not be considered generalizable to other audiences. Instead, they should be viewed as a moment in time from these subjects lives in their online communities.

Data Analysis

Social Capital: The meaning of social capital has varied greatly as this concept has gained attention across disciplines. However, there is general consensus that it refers to the resources accumulated through the relationships among people (Coleman, 1988). These resources are made possible because networks and the associated norms of reciprocity have value (Putnam, 2000). However, social capital is not homogenous. This suggests that resources found in relationships with others may motivate users of online social networking sites in multiple ways. In an examination of the social capital implications of Facebook use among college students, Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe (2007) found that particular uses of the site were associated with higher levels of social capital. Specifically, they found that Facebook usage supported the maintenance of three kinds of social capital: bridging, bonding, and maintained social capital. Bridging social capital is linked to what is known as “weak ties”, which are loose connections among individuals (Granovetter, 1982; Putnam, 2000). Bonding social capital is found between individuals in close, emotional relationships such as family and close friends. Finally, maintained social capital is the ability to maintain valuable connections as one progresses through life changes (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). Shneiderman also addresses the concept of social capital, but through his circles of relationships (Shneiderman, 2002). Our survey results found support for all three types of social capital.

Our participants reported joining the social networking site specifically for purposes of bridging social capital. One participant explained why they joined: “(they were) wanting to have some way to maintain friendships that are distant, or those friendships where an occasional message will suffice.” This is characteristic of weak ties and bridging, or citizens and market relationships where connections between individuals are made for useful information or new perspectives but are not typically associated with emotional support (Granovetter, 1982). However, our survey results also suggest that social networking sites serve more than one purpose in garnering and accumulating social capital. Many of our participants reported using features of the site and motivation for adding content based on a desire to support people in their network. In particular, using the tool to write on other people’s walls was closely associated with this form of bonding social capital. Multiple participants offered examples of well wishing and support in writing on walls: “to connect with them, say hello, offer support” “support their situation (Get well soon, great pics, I agree, etc)” “To let them know I’m thinking of them.” Characteristic of bonding social capital, many of our participants also specifically reported using the site to support close friends and family relationships. Participants reported that they updated photos: “to keep what i am doing updated for my friends” “to share with friends what’s been going on in my circle.”

Our findings suggest that unlike the assertions of previous research (Parks & Floyd, 1996), these types of social networking sites are not necessarily used to meet new people online. That is, the motivation to use online tools is not necessarily to free people from the bounds of geography to meet people online first and then pursue offline relationships. Rather, Facebook is a social networking tool that is most used to keep in touch with old friends and to maintain or intensify relationships characterized by some offline connection or proximity (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). In a longitudinal study of Facebook use, Lampe, Ellison, and Steinfield (2008) found that users largely considered peers that shared offline connections, like friends and acquaintances, more likely to be seen as their social networking audience than non-peers and strangers. “The utility of Facebook seems to be centered on its ability to provide social information about peers or others in ones extended social circle” (Lampe, Ellison & Steinfield, 2008). This is closely related to the third type of social capital — maintained social capital, which Ellison et al. (2007) explored. They specifically examined maintained high school relationships and found support for this activity. In a longitudinal study, it was found that the number of users reporting contacts from high school friends has increased from 2006 to 2008 (Lampe, Ellison, Steinfield, 2008). Our participants also reported similar reasons for joining and adding content: “to reunite with old friends, and keep in touch with those that have moved away.” “To keep my friends that are living far away updated on what I am doing”. This speaks to the concept of maintained social capital, which refers to the maintenance of relationships after some life change, such as moving away. Communication: Previous research on social networks has indicated that a large proportion of Facebook messages are sent to “friends” outside a user’s geographically local network (Golder et al., 2006; Joinson, 2008). In Joinson’s (2008) study on the gratifications users derive from Facebook, a large majority of the 137 survey responses mentioned motivations of “keeping in touch” and/or “chatting with people I otherwise would have lost contact with.” Lampe et al. also found that a main motivation for Facebook use is to keep in touch with old friends (Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2008). These studies suggest that Facebook contributes to the maintenance of social ties over both time and distance. Our survey shows a similar trend. “it’s a good/fun way to keep in touch with current friends and find old friends that I’d fallen out of touch with…” “…to reunite with old friends, and keep in touch with those that have moved away” “invited from a friend in England.” Along this vein, over half of our respondents wrote that their reasons for joining Facebook were either to “keep in touch” or to reconnect with old friends. An interesting theme emerges from these parallel findings: Facebook users claim to use the service, at least partially, to maintain social ties that would have otherwise dissolved over time and, in many cases, to recreate ties that had already been lost. Due to the nature of our sampling and the demographics of our sample, we can assume that all or nearly all of our survey respondents have both email and phone services available for maintaining social connections, and yet these media have not allowed them to maintain these particular ties. How and why does Facebook afford social contact that would otherwise disappear or not reappear? “(because it’s) easier than actually texting or talking to them.” Facebook tools may simply make it easier to maintain particular types of social ties. Several respondents to our survey mentioned that communication via Facebook was either simply “easy” or “easier” than other methods of contact. The communication channels enabled by Facebook lower physical, mental, and social barriers to interpersonal communication. Communication technologies, which date back to the optical telegraph of ancient times, have consistently addressed the barrier of physical distance. But bridging physical distance with technology begets other challenges for communication, including financial considerations, limitations of the technology itself, and altered social constraints. Traditionally, the per-minute cost of long distance phone calls added a financial burden to maintaining social ties that contributed to a drop off in continued contact for less intimate, non-kin or distant kin relationships at distances over 100 miles (Mok & Wellman, 2007). Even after the onset of anytime/anywhere cell phone minutes and essentially free email plans, social concerns related to these technological channels continued to prevent the maintenance or reestablishment of these less intimate social ties. The Facebook communication platform has simultaneously and effectively addressed many of these concerns, making it easier to foster and nurture tenuous social ties. “…to have some way to maintain friendships that are distant, or those friendships where an occasional message will suffice.” “…it makes me feel a little more in touch than I would otherwise because I wouldn’t be calling 40+ people to hear these updates over the phone each day” In their pivotal paper on the telecommunication industry, Hollan and Stornetta (1992) urged communication technologists to shift from a focus on trying to imitate face-to-face communication over distance (which continues to prove difficult) and instead promoted a goal aimed at going “beyond being there,”; of creating new technologies that were, in their own ways, better than face-to-face. To describe their concept, they used the metaphor of crutches versus shoes. Crutches are tools used temporarily to help someone get through a transition. Shoes, on the other hand, are designed to surpass inherent human limitations. Our research suggests that Facebook is giving people shoes by providing them a new medium of communication that enhances existing communication options: “It’s nice to drop people a line that’s informal… something that phone calls and emails can’t do as well.” “…quick hello “i’m thinking of you” without a lot of commitment” “easier than actually texting or talking to them.” Facebook communication is perceived as being less intrusive and less formal than other channels of communication, and opens new channels of communication that allow for the maintenance of thin social ties that would have otherwise been erased by distance or casual nature. For some users, it creates a virtual neighborhood where they can say a quick hello to an old friend or distant family member as they pass each other on the digital street. For others, it recreates the high school hallway where they can exchange a few words with former best friends as they pass each other on the way to class and can slide a note into an old crush’s locker during lunch. Identity Formation: We approached online identity formation using the conceptual framework of cultural identity rather than developmental psychology. The web constitutes a culture in the sense that online individuals, by definition, belong to an online community, if for no other reason than to gain access to the web. The web is a social phenomenon and any concept of self that arises from it is necessarily defined in relation to others. Considering online identity formation to be an extension of identity formation in the “real world” is flawed. While motivations may be similar, online identity differs substantially. The most obvious difference is the lack of social affordances present in face to face interaction. This process, known as deindividuation, results in greater reliance on self-generated identity cues (Merola et al., 2006). While this is especially prevalent in online avatars, this motivational factor is likely involved in profile creation on social networking sites. Comments from survey respondents revealed attempts to overcome deindividuation by providing viewers with these social affordances: “I have a beard now, so I updated my picture.” Another aspect of identity formation that we encountered involved the social construction of identity based on the features available on social networking sites. Both MySpace and Facebook allow users to post public comments and pictures on their profile or their friends’ space. For a number of respondents, these tools are used to cultivate a specific image of themselves in public. This self-marketing encourages others to associate them with that image, idea, or concept: “I want to? show off my kids and my wonderful life” “Showing off how great I look :)” The social creation of identity is often an iterative process. Publicly viewable dialogues evolve on profiles and are used for identity formation and connecting emotionally with another. A good analogy might be a publicly viewable version of a high school yearbook. The writing on the inside sleeve helps establish the identity of the owner. Such exchanges are often rich in social cues that shape and communicate identity and emotion. When asked why they posted content, respondents to our survey mentioned some closely related motivations: “to? communicate my? mood” “I had a great idea I wanted to share” “So people know what I’m interested in” “To notify others of something interesting I was doing.” These responses exemplify the need to share a current emotion, idea, or personal interest. These “of the moment” utterances are a proclamation of individual identity. When it occurs as part of a dialogue, this content has the advantage of allowing asynchronous communication. It also demonstrates the persistent nature of user-generated material; it is often highly time-sensitive (Boyd, 2008). The quote above regarding mood offers a prime example; moods change and unless you constantly update your profile, it is unlikely to reflect your “true” identity. The ephemeral nature of speech differs from user-generated content in several significant ways. Unlike speech in a public realm, user-generated content on a social networking site is both preserved and searchable. The audience is typically invisible and stretched across time and space. This could create potential identity concerns because one knows that a member of a different relationship circle — a boss, parent, partner, or complete stranger, might view their profile, when it was created for a separate audience. Not surprisingly, this could create the possibility of self-censorship and identity fracture; the disjoining and partitioning of different aspects of identity (Fuchs, 2006). This raises the legitimate concern that people are highly motivated to construct a purposely misleading identity using their profiles. The reliance on trust in interpreting profiles based on social affordances is not a one-sided relationship. The reader is not always at the mercy of the profile creator. Interpreting an online identity is an exercise in critical reading. As Irving Goffman pointed out, and Berman et al. confirmed, the reader can expect “… consistency between appearance and manner.” (Goffman, 1959). In keeping with this, Berman and Bruckman found that it was relatively easy for respondents to tell, based on these affordances, when someone was posing online as the opposite gender. (Berman, et al, 2001). In this experiment, context, language and other cues helped viewers determine the truthfulness of online identity claims. Creating a purposely misleading public identity is not foolproof; viewers do have some limited means for establishing “truth”.

Future Directions: Even brief exposure to social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook shows that they are commonly used to establish profiles for a wide range of purposes. Recent phenomena such as “profile farming” (; the sale of profiles based on the value and number of “friends”, suggests that identity theory may not always be the best framework for understanding all types of profiles. Future research will need to extend beyond communication, social capital, and identity formation theory. Since social networking profiles are used for such a wide range of purposes, thinking of them as belonging to or representing a person might be misleading. An argument could be made for a “web-in-miniature” model to better understand social networking profiles; a profile is basically a template for a webpage and can be used as a blog, marketing tool, etc. This is especially true of MySpace where users can include CSS and HTML in their profiles, essentially making their own websites with a MySpace URL. Perhaps this is analogous to what Seymour Papert intended with Turtle LOGO; using the computer to create a fun and socially meaningful learning environment. (Papert, 1993) Future research should also explore digital and social systems other than social networking sites. These could include social education sites, software communities, and public news reporting, such as: LearnHub, Open Source Software, and CNN’s iReporter. Future research should also incorporate an advanced survey component, based off of a simple random sample and followed up with face-to-face interviews with a portion of the individuals. Conclusions: The motivations for joining and creating content on social networking sites is complex and varied. Our research supports previous work identifying social capital, communication, and identity as integral motivations for Facebook and MySpace participants. Users join, post content, create profiles, and use the site on a regular basis to make easy connections, support close family and friends, maintain relationships, participate in informal communication, and form personal identities. This work is far from done; as online tools and communities evolve, motivations are likely to change. New features, issues of privacy, storage capacity or market forces, might attract or alienate users. Some possible questions for further investigation might examine how bandwidth influences participation; how privacy settings impact identity formation; why users remove friends; how human interaction is influenced by social networking.

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