February 17, 2013

Social Media And The Rise Of The Internet Validation Culture

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Shutterstock

What makes us post that status on Facebook for all our friends to see? Are we seeking an acceptance of some kind? If so, what possible purpose does that feeling of acceptance have other than to provide a small jolt of excitement; a small bump of the feel good chemical dopamine to our brains?

Facebook has approximately 500 million users worldwide with (according to Socialbakers.com) 168,594,460 users in the U.S. alone. Of those, 3,404,800 have joined up in the last three months. Among those 500 million users, approximately 50% use it everyday and have shared more than 30 billion pieces of content a month.

With all that in mind it’s hard to conceive that all 30 billion pieces of content were shared with the intent of getting those precious “likes” but that seems to be the case.

This speaks to a phenomenon that not a lot of people discuss and is, for the most part, overlooked as a normal facet of living in today’s world. That phenomenon is the deep, seemingly unquenchable need for acceptance from either our peers or persons unknown.

Questions about the need for “likes” are even shared in hopes of getting those very same “likes” on these social media platforms:

SO META.

Facebook isn’t the only platform where this pandering takes place.

YouTube boasts 800 million unique users a month with over 72 hours of video uploaded each minute.

Even Twitter has 200 million active users of it’s own.

What makes these people try to appeal to other humans across this vast network of tubes we call the internet? In most part, these are other humans that they have never, and will never meet.

Take this video for example, what exactly would drive a person record this, let alone allow it to be posted to Youtube?

Where does this deep need for social validation come from?

In my curiosity I came across our friend, Wikipedia and several descriptions of social biases which seem to tie in well.

The first is “Projection Bias” in which people unconsciously assume that others share their current emotional states, thoughts or values. This may contribute to the further, “False consensus effect” which is the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.

The most interesting, and seemingly most related social bias I came across however, was a little thing called the “In-group bias” or “In-group favoritism”.

This is essentially the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups.

Wikipedia expounds on the effect:

It is argued that one of the key determinants of group biases is the need to improve self-esteem. That is individuals will find a reason, no matter how insignificant, to prove to themselves why their group is superior. This phenomenon was pioneered and studied most extensively by Henri Tajfel, a British social psychologist who looked at the psychological root of in-group/out-group bias. To study this in the lab, Tajfel and colleagues created what are now known as minimal groups (see minimal group paradigm) which occur when “complete strangers are formed into groups using the most trivial criteria imaginable”. In Tajfel’s studies, participants were split into groups by flipping a coin, and each group then was told to appreciate a certain style of painting none of the participants were familiar with when the experiment began. What Tajfel and his colleagues discovered was regardless of the fact that a) participants did not know each other, b) their groups were completely meaningless and c) none of the participants had any inclination as to which “style” they like better, almost always across the board participants “liked the members of their own group better and they rated the members of their in-group as more likely to have pleasant personalities”. By having a more positive impression of individuals in the in-group, individuals are able to boost their own self-esteem as members of that group.

Essentially, what it seems to come down to is the need to feel like one belongs to a specific group.

I’ve heard stories and read articles about the biological basis of being a valued member of a social group, in that, if we couldn’t provide completely for ourselves, being a member of a social group guaranteed that our needs would be taken care if the necessity arose. Further, according to the Wikipedia entry on social groups, “Group behaviours have a beneficial effect thus in augmenting the group’s abilities.”

It’s no wonder that some form of dopamine distribution evolved to improve self esteem when we felt we were included in a group.

It’s in our nature to want to feel like we’re a part of a social group.

In pre internet days our social group consisted, in small part, of our friends and family, and in a larger, less cohesive part of our surrounding town, city or society.

Today that social group has grown to include not only our friends, family and surrounding town, but the entire world connected in some way to the internet.

Whether this is beneficial or to our detriment remains to be seen.

Maybe in coming years, studies will be done about the appearance of social cohesion that exists on the internet in our hundreds of friends, thousands of followers and millions of viewers.

We need to be accepted, or rather, our brains tell us that we need to be accepted.

Simply put, more and more of us are seeking that acceptance in places we never would’ve imagined before that exist in a purely virtual world we call the internet. TC mark

Michael Hedrick

Michael Hedrick is a writer and photographer in Boulder, CO. His work has appeared in Salon, The Week, Scientific …