The psychology of sharing

When reading articles online some people duck straight to the comment section underneath the article. Others, as this Slate article explores, read a few paragraphs and stop there or tweet a link to the twitter hordes without finishing.

Why do people share the way they do online?

We’re a pretty social species as it goes, but online we can be different in our interactions. Online we can be like students starting university: able to reinvent.

When it comes it social media we can be the sum of the pictures or tweets we choose to share. We allow people to see the snapshots we like to build a tailored image of who we are. Our tweets, Facebook shares or the traces we leave beneath articles are often more important to us as online personalities than the content we actually consume.

This could be why the content that is most shared evokes emotions in the people we share it with. Something funny, or tragic, or sad or intellectual.

The urge to flick the tweet switch before finishing an article is sometimes down to this. You know when you’ve found something likely to elicit the emotional response you are looking for and you tweet it.

The wrong list of articles that you’ve read may attract no interest from other users at all. The pieces may be interesting to you but unless they can make a connection with your followers then they are unlikely to cultivate your online persona.

You may even get negative points for tweeting too much dense material people don’t want to read when relaxing or on a break at work. Journalists often struggle here, tweeting too much intellect fodder and not enough lighter material.

Journalists working with social media, such as Daniel Victor of the NYTand Ben Whitelaw of The Times, get this. What they tweet is interesting to their followers at the time they are likely to be using twitter. It also involves pictures and occasionally more personal content building a connection on various levels.

Its articles are easy, piecemeal news. Anyone can digest them quickly, so people are more likely to read them when you post them and attribute a mental plus point to your social avatar.

Buzzfeed knows what and how people read and why people share.

What’s more Buzzfeed content is varied. They have long form reads as well as the signature listicles.

The topics of the lists themselves are diverse too: Grant Shapps the Tory party chairman wrote a propaganda one on energy price rises, while there are also articles exploring cats, dogs, swearing hobbits and the folly of not building more houses.

It’s a news source made to be shared, because it is a quick way for people to showcase their interests on a range of subjects. They can enhance their peers’ view of their humour and intellect in one post. Crafty.

I find listicles nauseating mind you. But clever.

The system of personality point-scoring is interesting not least because it is ubiquitous in the digital world, and not just on social networks.

Reddit users offer up-points to comments they like. News websites often recommend the most insightful comments and allow other readers to recommend contributions too. This leads to validation.

The same increased kudos or personality by a thousand points is visible in computer games too. We the digital generation are used to working online or in graphics at tasks that gradually improve character’s attributes. World of Warcraft, GTA, Football Manager, and so on ad digifinitum.

Characters in games develop skills and characters on twitter accrue respect amongst their peers.

Being social is all about reputation. Vampire bats (like these cute ones here) that share blood with one another remember sharers and Scrooges, as do grooming monkeys. Animals don’t like wasting energy on selfish individuals, and nor do humans.

Online we don’t like wasting time on boring shares of boring content. And we want people to read what we share, so we have to learn to share what people read.

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