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I Share, Therefore I Am

Social Media, Science and Brand You

Monday, 20 October 2014

When was the last time you shared something with a friend?

Today, you might have posted a funny Bachelor meme on a friend’s wall.

Yesterday, you might have shared an interesting news article about Australia’s security situation. 

Tomorrow, maybe you’ll regram Iggy Azalea’s latest Instagram photo.

It’s almost instinctive, the act of sharing. We never really stop to think about why. And we definitely wouldn’t describe it as a personal marketing strategy.

But in reality, that’s exactly what sharing is. Research suggests personal branding is at the centre of our sharing behaviour.

With endless social platforms at our fingertips, this is the age of digital exhibitionism. We carefully select our profile pictures, update our network of friends on our latest accomplishments and take great ownership over our online personas.

We’re the curators of our own digital selves. While Facebook and Instagram makes frequent self-promotion more evident, research suggests that our tendency to share has been around for much longer. 

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A 1966 study on word of mouth revealed 64% of sharing was motivated by the benefit for the sharer, rather than for others. Nearly 50 years later, the New York Times drew the same conclusion. The Psychology of Sharing whitepaper found that 68% of respondents said they shared to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about. And you can’t argue with science.

Our decision to share an image is more likely based on how we think it will be perceived by others rather than how visually appealing it is, say researchers from the University of California Los Angeles.

We use the content we engage with to define ourselves, forming a virtual tapestry of our values, ideals and sense of self that we project onto others.

By sharing a funny video, the sharer seems funnier by association. Similarly, by sharing something political we are actively aligning ourselves with a particular movement. 

An alternative explanation for the sharing phenomenon lies within the effect the content has on us emotionally. The particular emotion a piece of content inspires can be correlated to its online velocity.

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And it appears that not all emotions are created equal. Researchers at the Beihang University in China found anger to be the fastest spreading emotion, triggering a sort of chain reaction of angry sharing. In similar study in the United States, Jonah Berger and a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania found that while anger moved fast, awe was even speedier than rage. Berger says feelings of wonder and excitement increases our desire for emotional connection, and this drives us to share. 

Think of the time you read that news article that infuriated you. No doubt you emailed it to your partner, or voiced your outrage to your colleagues. 

Or how about the first time you saw the video of Christian the Lion? 

No doubt you shared that one with 1,000 of your closest Facebook friends.

It seems that the science isn’t clear-cut and there are a few possible reasons for sharing, from personal branding to an instinctive emotional reaction.

One thing is for certain: we love sharing. So, we’ll leave you with this gem: 

You know what to do.