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The Psychology of Facebook

By Wil Forbis

I was always something of a late bloomer in regards to using social networks. Friends had to pester me for years to join Friendster, until I finally signed up just in time for its implosion. I also took my sweet time getting involved with MySpace which now also appears to be on its death bed. But I had learned my lesson by the time Facebook --- the most successful of the online social networks --- arrived at the doorstep of popular consciousness. I signed up, and regularly visit the site. I even admit to experiencing some of the "Facebook addiction" that is often commented on by pop psychologists and cultural nannies.

What makes Facebook so popular? On the surface, it's merely a collection of pre-existing Web technologies --- status updates (which can be thought of as mini blogs (or to use the modern nomenclature, "tweets")), the ability to comment on such status updates, e-mail, embedded video and audio, and simplistic video games whose appeal is entirely lost on me. There's not a whole lot new here --- certainly nothing Friendster or MySpace hadn't already developed. So why has Facebook succeeded whereas the others failed?

I suspect there are many answers to that question, some having to do with managerial decisions, timing, marketing etc. But there is one concept Facebook employed that no other social network ever got right: the "stream." The stream is the core of the Facebook UI --- the descending tower of status updates, links and videos created by your social contacts. The power of the stream is that it allows you to quickly answer the question, "what are my friends doing/talking about/thinking about right now?"

One could then ask, "why do I care?" And, indeed, a lot of what ends up in the stream is essentially uninteresting fluff. Do I really care that my neighbor from five years ago is going out for coffee? (Frankly, do I care that my life mate is going out for coffee?) But enough of what's in the stream is of interest to keep us coming back. It is something of a thrill to find out that your cousin is reading a book you raved about three years ago. And it is intriguing to discover that the chick you dated in Los Angeles happens to be a friend of someone you know in Chicago, even though they travel in completely separate social circles.

So is that the magic of Facebook? Is it simply the modern town square, bringing folks together for the sweet pleasures of human companionship? Anyone familiar with my writing knows that such a warm, inspirational answer is not enough to satisfy me. There must be some other need, deep within the dark selfish recesses of the human unconscious, that is being satisfied.

In the past, I've posited that social networks allow transactions of what I call "social currency." You can think of social currency as favors. In the old days, I might have done my neighbor a favor by bringing back his stray goat. But I did so not for purely altruistic reasons; secretly, I expected him to keep an eye on my fenced cow. And if he failed to do so, I would hold it against him. This concept of doing favors and expecting favors in return is what's often referred to as reciprocal altruism. In the realm of economic studies called game theory, they refer to the strategy of reciprocal altruism as "tit for tat." Tit for tat says, in essence, that people will do favors for other people, until they get screwed, in which case they stop the favors. However if the person who screwed them suddenly does them a unprovoked favor, their faith is renewed and they will return the favor.

Now, you can see reciprocal altruism and "tit for tat" all over social networks, especially Facebook. To do so, let's first acknowledge the rather obvious truth: people want to be popular. They want to appear to have of friends, and want their friends to be interested and involved in their lives. Facebook literally tells you how many friends a person has (at least how many "Facebook friends.") And you can get a pretty good sense of how involved a person's friends is with their lives by looking at how often that person's status updates are commented on and the nature of the comments. If I comment on a friend's post, I am aiding them in their universally human need to be loved and admired. BUT, I'm not just doing it out of the goodness of my heart --- I expect them to return the favor or some equivalent when I post an update. And, if I feel like that favor is not being returned, I may stop posting on their comments. Essentially, I'm angry because I'm not getting a tit for my tat.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. If it were, everyone Facebook would probably have a generally equal amount of friends, and replies to their posts equal to their own output of replies. But there are people who have 3000 friends, while others have 30; there are people whose benign statements are lauded as profound, whereas there are people whose brilliant observations seem to go by the wayside (I feel that I often fall into that latter category.) Some people are social hubs, others are social duds. Why is this? Well, partly because of the real world outside of Facebook. Attracting even middling attention from the gorgeous girl in your French class is much better than inspiring total devotion from your best friend's little brother. There is such a thing as a social hierarchy, and some people are higher up on it than others. A dollar of social currency imparted from a king is worth more than five dollars of social currency imparted by a fool.

The dirty secret of reciprocal altruism is that we are ultimately looking after our own best interests. If we spend our social currency wisely, we can climb our way up to the VIP room with the movers and shakers --- the people who grant us social power, attractive sexual prospects, and good job prospects. (This is a massive simplification of human interaction, of course, but I think holds true as a general rule.) Ascending the social ladder in real life is often difficult -- at first glance it's often hard to tell the winners from the losers. But with Facebook, the numbers are literally written across the page.

As a result, one has to wonder how much power can be gleaned from viewing Facebook data. Across the nation, across the world, there are millions of social circles -- groups of friends and social hierarchies. Before Facebook, this data about these human relationships was almost unknowable except on a very cursory level. But now it is quite accessible, at least to Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts. Want to know how many times Julie M. of Saginaw Michigan has commented on her office manager's posts? They can tell you. Should Suzy Q. be concerned about the number of times her best friend has clicked like button on her husband's banal status updates. Only if she can see the data. Want to know how many degrees of separation you are from James Franco? In theory, the answer is stored somewhere in the Facebook servers.

At first, it might seem like this would be intriguing but ultimately pointless information. But who knows what knowledge could be gleaned from studying the trends in human companionship --- average number of friends broken down by geography, average number of status updates by age etc. Such data could allow us to learn quite a bit about our behavior is social animals. But would we like what we find out?

UPDATE October 2013: Facebook data is now being analyzed to accurately guess who a person is in a romantic relationship with.

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - acidlogic@hotmail.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.