Building Social Media Platforms of the Future Using Psychology Principles
Part One: Psychology
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This is part one of a two-part series, which seeks to combine an analysis of the underlying psychology principles behind social media with an exploration of emerging technologies in order to forecast what the future of social media may look like. Part one focuses on providing an understanding of the psychology principles behind social media.
You can read Part two here.
“The needs for safety, belonging, love relations and for respect can be satisfied only by other people, i.e., only from outside the person.” — Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being
The craving for belonging, love, and respect through self-expression has always been a fundamental aspect of human psychology. Whether it be through the clothes we wear, the professions we take up, or the sports we play — we’ve always been a tribe-based culture. Then the internet came along and exploited this desire in unimaginable ways. From MySpace and Facebook to YouTube and Vine to Instagram and TikTok, social networks have been built upon the core fundamentals of human instincts. Today, we have new technologies — from augmented reality to virtual reality — and new forms of expressing ourselves — from videos to memes and GIFs — but the underlying physiology of the brain has remained relatively the same. So, given these ideas, what will the future of social media look like? How will new technology continue to leverage our basic motivation and seamlessly create new needs within us?
In part one of this article we dive into the basic theories behind what motivates us to take action and how social media has leveraged these principles.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the best known theories of motivation and explains that we take actions to fulfill certain needs. Needs at the bottom of the pyramid are our basic “deficiency needs” — food, water, sleep, and a sense of safety and security. Once our basic essentials our met, our desires become increasingly psychological and social. However, Maslow also noted that the order in which these needs are met does not always follow this standard progression — for some, self-esteem or creative fulfillment may be more important than our most basic needs. By leveraging these theories, social media has increased our psychological and self-fulfilment needs, sometimes to the detriment of our basic needs.
We all desire a sense of belonging; since we were kids, we wanted to fit in. Perhaps that meant wearing certain clothes, eating certain foods, listening to certain music — it’s all to feel part of a community. When apps like Myspace, Facebook, and Reddit came along, they brought this craving to the online world. The basic idea of Facebook is connecting with people — whether it be friends, being part of a group, or RSVP’ing to an event — it’s based on a sense of belonging. On Reddit, people congregate around topics — a sports team, a diet, a musical artist, etc. These platforms have made the need for belonging a staple of their composition.
“He [humans] will hunger for affectionate relations with people in general, namely, for a place in his group, and he will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal.” — Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation
Once we feel a sense of belonging, we require a feeling of accomplishment. Maslow identifies two subsets of esteem needs: those that are based upon the desire for “strength, achievement, for adequacy,” and those that are based in a “desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), recognition, attention, importance or appreciation.” Instagram thrives on our intense need for the latter. What better way to display your achievements then with a picture that you receive likes and comments on. Another platform that has leveraged this masterfully is LinkedIn. It’s a platform designed to display your professional skills and achievements. Exploiting our need for esteem is perhaps the main technique through which social media hooked society — this is an area where people will sometimes attempt to fulfill this need before their basic needs. They may skip meals, skip sleep, perform unsafe acts just to get the “like” on Instagram. Exploiting this desire for recognition and attention has become a crucial aspect for social networks to bake into their design.
Last but certainly not least, we all have this desire to feel like we’re achieving our full potential — that we’re fulfilling our dreams. Maslow describes it as “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” This is where platforms like YouTube and TikTok have thrived. On YouTube, anything is possible. You can create videos about whatever your heart desires and build a community around it. A similar phenomenon takes place on TikTok, you can put videos of you dancing for 15s at a time and millions of people follow you. Social media has intensified our innate desire for self actualization.
What these different needs display is that humans are in a constant cycle of wanting more. Once one desire is met, another one takes shape. The makers behind social media understand this and leverage it.
How Recent Social Apps Leverage Self-Actualization
While it’s clear all social platforms are created with these basic psychology principles in mind, there is a common trend among the purpose behind some of the more recent platforms:
TikTok: “Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.”
Triller: “Create, Share, Connect”
byte: “creativity first”
Creativity and self-expression are the commonality. These app makers have realized that at our core, people have a fervent desire to create and express themselves; these apps make it incredibly easy to do so — their in-app editing features are unlike anything the mobile world has seen. They thrive on short-form content — 15s is good enough, heck, byte only allows for 6s videos. The core focus is simply on creation. On self-actualization Maslow wrote,
“In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions. It is not necessarily a creative urge although in people who have any capacities for creation it will take this form.”
These short-form video apps empower all people — from athletes and painters to musicians and parents — to fulfill this need to express themselves and “ become more and more what one is.”
These more recent apps, perhaps, give us a glimpse into what the future may hold. However, we can’t predict the future of social media without analyzing technology. What happens when you add new technologies over this layer of human motivation? How will new technology enable us to further express our creativity? Will privacy-first platforms capitalize on our need for safety? Can chatbots leverage our craving for belonging?
All this will be covered in part two of this article. See you there.
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