social & community

What’s in it for me? Why people participate in social networking websites

Now that we’re all super excited about social media, and every man and his dog wants to do *something* to do with social networking, it seems a pertinent time to ask… but why?

Why does the world need your product or service to include ‘something social’? Why on earth would you want to create a *new* social networking service? Why does the world need another place to go and try to find all of their friends online and to… well… share stuff?

Good question – and one that doesn’t seem to be asked quite often enough, as we all rush towards being ‘socially compliant’ with our blogs and our wikis and our user generated content and our buddy/friends lists.

If you’re thinking of joining the bun rush (or your client has insisted that they must), I think the first and most important question to ask is from your potential users perspective – what’s in it for them? What’s their motivation to sign up, to find and make friends, to participate, and to come back, ever?

What’s the motivation of your employees (in an enterprise environment) to start or contribute to a blog or to add or edit content on a wiki?

The best framework that I’ve found so far for thinking about it has come via Tom Coates in his presentation ‘Greater Than The Sum of Its Parts‘ where he talks about personal motivation for users in social network environments

Tom quotes Peter Pollack’s ‘Economies of Online Cooperation’ and says that there are four key sources of personal motivation in online social networking, being:

  1. Anticipated Reciprocity
  2. Reputation
  3. ‘Sense of Efficacy’
  4. Identification with a group

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it. People participate in these things because they think they’ll get back what they put in (and perhaps more), it will enhance their reputation (making them more likely to be the go to person for the cool projects because they’ve established themselves as an expert in that area, for example), they can get things done faster (like using Twitter as Tech Support), or – because that’s where their people hang.

Of course, I’d add into that the Ambient Intimacy effect which I think is more about being connected and less about identification.

At the end of the day though, we *know* that people participate in social networks firstly because they get some value from it personally. The network effect that comes from that is a very welcome byproduct, but it will only come about if the prerequisite of personal value is met.

So, as you, or your client, are considering your foray into the world of social networking – please start by thinking carefully about what value you’re delivering to your user. What is their motivation for using your site? What’s in it for them.

If you can honestly and realistically overcome this first hurdle, then you might have a chance of creating something truly valuable and successful.

14 thoughts on “What’s in it for me? Why people participate in social networking websites

  1. The amazing thing about Kollock is that much of his research was done during the 90s…way back when most of the social interaction online was in rather closed communities like the WELL…he didn’t even have the wide open social networks that we have today.

    But, of course, his theories seem spot on still.

  2. Hi Lisa,
    good article, thanks :)
    The world would be a better place if everyone in the enterprise social computing space took your advice – go beyond the cool to the definable business case – the WIIFM.
    Best regards, Andrew

  3. Timely reminder as we start our own “bun rush” in my organization. What’s interesting is how Web 1.0 the whole equation is (but then, I’ve always argued that web 2.0 is web 1.0 with better protocols, better UI and smarter VCs) – if your users don’t get a clear return on their efforts, they won’t come back. Of course, the more social networking sites there are (has anyone done a count?), the higher the bar gets.

  4. I’ve been examining this is some detail on my blog, particularly the effects of personal motivation and external factors in the decision making process for adopting social computing.

    The answer goes beyond just personal social needs and is intertwined with how people perceive the benefits to be had with any change.


  5. Just started wondering about the same thing. Had not heard about Tom Coates before, but will check out next.

    As I pondered this question, and tried to apply some of the stuff I remember from my psychology studies at university about motivation that without any empirical data (ie. qualitative studies with actual users) any answer remains speculative or at best introspective. So good to find another pointer.

    I think the key question really is what aspects of a website make users feel they can achieve their goals (ie. fulfill their motivations) – apart from usability and critical mass …

  6. Hi Johannes,
    I’d be looking for quantitative studies too – how many people are using social computing, in what setting (work vs afterwork vs home), and for what definable purpose (work vs afterwork vs non-work) – although I would have to add the disclaimer that for many people I believe that the boundary between these categories is blurring.

    I think that speculation is acceptable when marked as such – it’s when people say “studies have proven..” without quoting their sources that things get fuzzy. That said, I believe that without speculation there would be less discovery, even if that speculation is wrong :)

    Best regards, Andrew

  7. Hrm.. have to say that if I was to research this, I’d be going with qual. not quant, Andrew. After all… isn’t this all about *why* people do stuff, not so much what they’re doing? Quantitative research might validate some of the findings from a qualitative research study, but I don’t think it’s a good first approach.

    I’m thinking, for example, of some of the behaviour I’ve been exploring with FaceBook friending. Quant. research might have told me that the average 25 year old has x number of friends and communicates regularly with y% of them. It doesn’t tell my why that person has all those other friends on there that they don’t message regularly or at all. It’s only through talking to them (qual) that you get to understand this behaviour.

    Anyways… not sure if this is relevant this is to your comment or whether I’m on a big ‘defending qualitative research’ bent at the moment ;)

    I do definitely agree with both the comments on research tho’ – it would be great to see more hard core research on the how and why of social networks coming out so that we can better understand this. And also with Joshua’s comment that Kollock’s work was done back in the 90s, so perhaps we actually have more resources we could be drawing on that we’re overlooking in the belief that all this is newer than it actually is.. perhaps :)

    I know some of the most interesting and relevant research I found on the whole ‘Ambient Intimacy’ topic was done a few years ago by researchers in Japan doing ethnographic research on teenagers use of mobile phones…

    something to ponder :)

  8. Hi Lisa,

    perhaps it is my existentialist take on social computing – that the “why” is so hard to pin down so we might as well look at the “is” so that at least we’re tracking it. Not that qualitative research is inapplicable – far from it, but because it takes longer to do properly, and things like Facebook are growing so rapidly, it may never happen in sufficient depth across a significant sample of groups.

    Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic, when it comes right down to it, and usefully extrapolable studies will help us understand what is happening AND why :)

    Cheers, Andrew

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