Online Social Networks User Motivators: The Science


It’s time for those involved in social media to try to understand the science of social media networks. As all professional marketers will know, marketing is a science and not an art.

Therefore, this paper helps marketers to understand one facet of online social media networks, the one of what motivates people to participate in them in the first place.


The Science of Social Media User Motivators

Traditional social networks have been the subject of a considerable amount of social science academic literature with regard to what motivates people and societies to socialise and form communities. Building upon existing social science theories, further research has been conducted into what physiological motivators drive people to create and participate in social networks communities .This is an important subject and needs to be addressed because it is valuable for marketers to understand user relationships and behaviours within online social network communities .Therefore, I offer the following perspectives.

Online social networks have undoubtedly entered into mainstream culture and integrated into the daily routines of many people world-wide. Social networks are transforming the way society thinks, acts and behaves. Social networks are bringing participants together to create online virtual communities, and to act as an outlet for creativity and expression.  Rheingold (1994) defines virtual communities as:

Social aggregations that emerge from the Internet when enough people carry on public discussions long enough and with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.

According to William (2009), communities are interdependent relationships that flourish when they deal with issues or common topic of interest. A study carried out by the IABC Research Foundation (1990) concluded that successful communication was “built on relationships, and was achieved through two way symmetrical communications”. Online social networks enable people to establish these two way relationships, and provide a highly effective method for computer mediated users to interact and form communities of like minded people, but on a considerably larger scale, scope and public openness than when IABC did their research 20 years ago.


Sociologists, who have been researching traditional social structures and friendship networks, have found that patterns of friendship are strongly influenced by characteristics such as age, race, language and values. This is explained in the ‘birds of a feather flock together’ concept developed by McPherson et al. (2001), which is based on the human tendency to seek out and engage with those people who are the most similar to them. A theory known in social science as ‘homophily’. The main principle of homophily is that personal networks are homogeneous in the respect of many sociodemographic, intrapersonal and behavioural traits.  René Girard of Stanford University, a proponent of a theory of human behaviour called ‘Mimetic Desire’ (, 2010), supports this argument.  Mimetic desire is based upon the concept that people are essentially sheep-like, and will copy one another without much reflection. This theory corroborates Thiel’s view, the Facebook venture capitalist, who argues that human beings will tend to move in flocks, hence the enormous popularity of Facebook.


The principles of homophily and the aforementioned theories, might offer a rationale as to why people congregate into social networks of self organised groups but they do not explain what motivates users to act and make contributions to these groups.  I suggest that the reasons why users elect to participate in social networks are more than a subconscious desire to mimic or follow other people as proposed by the aforementioned scholars.


According to Safko and Brake (2009), people become motivated to contribute information of value to their groups because they have an expectation that they will receive useful information in return, and gain recognition for doing so by their peers. Social psychology research has found that some individuals may contribute because they are having an influence over their environment and are gratified by responses to their contribution.  Social networks give individuals a channel to broadcast and express their views quickly and easily, in a conversational manner that is highly personal and controllable. Given that personal expression is recognised by sociologists as a compelling motivator to act I propose that this could be a key reason that explains why some people actively participate in social networks beyond the basic desire to be part of a group.

Furthermore, according to Nour (2008), social networks subscribers will decide to interact with and help others based upon the value each one brings. I posit that the digital communications media of Social networks does not limit the value that users can gain from each other. In a research project on chat networks, Reid (1995) acknowledged the relationship building capability of digital communications and found that personal relationships amongst participants can be deep and emotional. Reid claimed that “individuals may explore possible public identities, create otherwise unlikely relationships, and create new behavioural norms”. In so doing, I suggest that this could be a reason why users are drawn to invent new social network communities. Moreover, online communities can be low risk environments that encourage people to form more loose relationships, to be more open with their opinions and in doing so communities collectively generate more value for its members. Therefore, I deduce that it is possible that the collective value communities generate for their members increases as the numbers of members grow. A phenomenon creating a self perpetuating cycle which might explain why some social networks have grown to the scale they have.

Clinical psychologists offer yet another reason as to why people participate in social networks such as Twitter, the micro-blog service, where each post is limited to 140 characters.  James (2010) believes that micro blogging stems from a lack of identity and through constantly blogging, users are reminding themselves as to who, what and where they are.  Cognitive neuropsychologist Lewis (2010) proposes that today’s society is narcissistic, and by using Twitter infers a level of insecurity invoked by a compulsion to be recognised.

However, Singer (2009) asserts that the main motivators of bloggers are derived from more positive behaviours that originate from an inherent desire to share their expertise, they want to become more involved with interests that they are passionate about, to speak their mind and they measure the success of their blogs through a sense of personal satisfaction.  I suggest that these behaviours relate back to earlier social science theories, specifically Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and levels of affiliation and self actualisation. Affiliation, in respect of the desire to be part of a community and self actualisation in terms of being able to express one’s self.

I have found that reasons why people are motivated to join online communities are complex, driven by deep seated psychological motivators that need to be understood by marketers if they intend to effectively create empathy and engage with community members.


Paul Fennemore is the Managing Director of Viapoint, a social media consultancy and services provider. Paul a popular speaker and panel host at digital and social media conferences and forums as well as regular blogger. Paul continues his research into social media in collaboration with Henley Business School and Oxford Brookes University. He holds an MSc with Distinction in Digital Marketing.