Have you ever wondered why we are so attracted to social media? Have you noticed how our behavior differs from platform to platform? And why do we often use two or more social media simultaneously? The uses and gratification theory (UGT) attempts to answer all these questions.
In this article, we will provide a working definition of social media uses and gratifications. We will then go through the most recent findings of UGT research. That will help us understand the reasons behind our behavior on social media platforms. Finally, we will investigate what happens when uses and gratifications hit “alert level,” -and what to do about it.
Uses and gratification theory in a nutshell
Uses and gratification theory is an old concept. It was first introduced in 1974 and explains how and why people seek specific types of media.
According to the theory, media users make an active selection of media content to satisfy their informational, social, and leisure needs.
People integrate media messages within their everyday lives to achieve optimal levels of gratification through the media they use.
“Optimality” depends on several factors, such as personal needs, social background, and life circumstances.
Uses and gratification factors
Uses and gratification factors of “new” media build on traditional ones. However, users can now experience interactive features and pursue self-affirmation through social media.
Socialization elements in mass communication fulfill people’s social needs:
- Social interaction;
- Sense of community;
- Social connection and relationship building.
Entertainment elements fulfill people’s leisure needs. Unlike traditional mass communications, users get gratification through a wide range of interactive tools in new media:
Information sharing typically enhances users’ knowledge. It also helps strengthen social bonding. The shared information may refer to personal interests or public matters. In the latter case, it favours strong political and civic participation.
Self-status seeking is an extra feature of today’s media. As seen in our previous article, new media allow for the creation of an e-personality. That combines users’ online interactions with their network of online profiles.
The possibility to create a skilled and interesting avatar fulfills people’s reputation needs. Being the online identity often an improved version of users’ offline persona also helps with positioning and personal branding.
One platform, one use?
As said, media users pick media content depending on which need they seek to satisfy.
In the pre-social networking era, media roles were clear: people read newspapers to stay informed, tuned into radio stations for music, and went to the cinema for fun. Given the numerous interconnected platforms users access nowadays, that is no longer the case.
Researches found that most people use several platforms simultaneously. People are increasingly active on social media to satisfy their information, communication, and leisure needs at once. That is especially true for teenagers and young adults who access social networks through their smartphones and mobile devices.
Not all social media are equal, though. According to a 2017 survey of 305 US college students, participants logged on to different platforms to satisfy different needs.
That would not only depend on students’ personal motivation and preferences but also specific platform’s features. Researchers have identified seven of them.
- Network intensity: it measures users’ emotional connection to a particular social media and how they integrate it into their lives;
- Trust: it refers to the user’s willingness to rely on other people on social media;
- Tie strength: it considers the degree to which bonds among social media users are strong or weak;
- Homophily: it shows to which extent social media connections are based on users’ beliefs, values, social status, and interests;
- Online privacy concerns: it refers to users’ awareness of data breaches and their desire to protect their personal information;
- Introversion: it defines a person’s preference for spending time alone rather than in groups;
- Attention to social comparison: it measures one’s sensitivity to peer scrutiny with regard to his own behavior and actions.
Within this framework, results showed that Instagram (38%), Facebook (30.5%), and Twitter (19.7%) were respondents’ most used platforms.
For the gratification aspect, researchers found that participants derived different “types” of satisfaction from their social media use.
Students interacted on Twitter to stay on top of news, feel part of a larger community, and come into contact with new people.
That may depend on Twitter setup: users can follow other individuals with whom they do not have a previous real-life connection.
Researches labeled this mechanism as “bridging social capital.” The term refers to creating “weak, distant relationships between individuals that make available opportunities for information sharing.”
On Instagram, respondents showed the same attitude, but to a lesser extent than Twitter. Meanwhile, Facebook users were more likely to interact with people they already knew in real life.
That may be because Facebook users typically add family and friends to their network and reach out to them for help and support.
Researches called this behavior “bonding social capital,” –a mechanism that “applies to strong relationships providing emotional kinship, trust, and social support.”
As seen, UGT provides a framework to explore social media dynamics and their most relevant implications. But what does it happen when social media are misused? What impact do they have on users’ lives and wellbeing?
Beyond theory: uses and gratification traps
Theory is great, and it usually works. Reality is more complex, though. That is why many experts have voiced concerns about social media use in recent years.
Whereas some issues are beyond the scope of this article, the following conditions may shed a light on users’ unhealthy behavior on social media.
Instant gratification is the immediate pleasure users get anytime they receive social media notifications. This euphoria results from dopamine release, a brain-produced chemical associated with pleasure and reward systems.
Dopamine-induced effects are short-lasting and highly addictive –a “hit” of dopamine makes people feel so good they want more.
Users may therefore fall into a cycle of constantly refreshing their social media feed. Some may also want to keep posting to increase their chances to get a positive response.
Research has shown that this behavior could have real-life consequences. Severe cases reported people having trouble sleeping, concentrating, and even working because they could not get away from social media.
Fear of missing out (FOMO)
Experts define FOMO as the “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” FOMO is “characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”
Recent studies suggest that FOMO is among the biggest drivers of social media usage. The need to be always up-to-date while peeking into others’ lives can trap users in a loop difficult to escape.
Feelings such as perceived exclusion or a false sense of involvement can fuel inadequacy, loneliness, and anxiety in social media users.
While it is important not to make overarching statements, some general rules may help people address social media misuse.
Mental health experts have often called for “social media purges.” These are breaks from online spaces and activities to reconnect with reality. Other solutions may involve outdoor activities, fulfilling offline hobbies, and workout routines.
That would help social media users regain perspective, focus more on themselves, and forge stronger ties with people in their real life.
Since social media is relatively new, conclusive findings are limited. The uses and gratification theory brings together traditional research and empirical data to provide additional insight into social media. That gives researchers and users a clearer understanding of social media dynamics, and help move the discussion forward.
By Nadia Musumeci Creativity, accuracy, and passion
Nadia is a copywriter and content writer. She offers copywriting, ghostwriting, and blogging services to businesses of all sizes. Nadia worked in public affairs, publishing, and the beauty industry. When she is not busy freelance writing or working on her blog, she is sunbathing in a park nearby. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
J. Phua, S.V. Jin, J. Kim, 2017. Uses and gratifications of social networking sites for bridging and bonding social capital: A comparison of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat
A.D. Smock, N.B. Ellison, C. Lampe, D.Y. Wohn, 2011. Facebook as a toolkit: A uses and gratification approach to unbundling feature use