Feature: Cyberpsychology

Zuckerberg took a lot of flack for changes to Facebook but they all have their reasons

Zuckerberg took a lot of flack for changes to Facebook but they all have their reasons

Facebook’s success is purely psychological according to an Irish academic and it may be its undoing too. Adam Maguire finds out more.

Changes to its privacy policy has led some Facebook users to threaten to quit the site for fear of having their personal information made public without their permission. However many other users seem relatively comfortable with the idea of sharing their details online, or at the very least ignorant to the fact that they are doing so quite openly.

Research being conducted by Dr Ciarán McMahon, lecturer in cyberpsychology, is trying to establish what type of person uses Facebook and how open they are about private matters in doing so. Information that could help map the impact of social media on people’s lives and predict what the next big shift in online activity will be.

“What we’re trying to do with Facebook and social media from the outset is to try to get a handle on what’s actually happening and it’s very tricky to do,” says Dr McMahon, who lectures in the subject of cyberpsychology at the School of Creative Technologies in Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technologies (IADT).

“In any other aspect of psychology if you have a paper that was published in 2007 that’s fantastic because it’s pretty new and it’s current; something on Facebook published in 2007 is by now out of date as it’s changing so quickly.”

Dr McMahon says one of the biggest questions hanging around social media – and the internet in general – is whether people will eventually get used to it as a part of their every day lives or whether its transience will stop that from happening. He believes people are coming to terms with the technology but many do not yet realise just how permanent and public their accounts are.

The research is also hoping to establish what kinds of people are drawn to social media sites and what way they interact with it, with different personality traits being responsible for different usage patterns online.

“Some of the research that has been done in IADT already suggests that conscientiousness is a negative predictor of usage; the less conscientious users are the ones more likely to use it which is very strange,” he says. “One of the biggest predictors of Facebook usage is narcissism; I’m quietly confident that that is going to have a big correlation.”

Dr McMahon goes on to point out, however, that narcissism can be seen as a positive as much as a negative as it could also be used to describe someone with a certain amount of self-belief and drive.

While not an obvious match Facebook already benefits from trusted psychological principles. For example the changes it made to its ‘News Feed’ some time ago were unpopular at first but have since proved a hit because of the addictive hit it provides, which Dr McMahon characterises as “variable reinforcement”.

In the case of Facebook this is where users get a reinforcing reward – such as an interesting message in their news feed – but at a variable rate. In order to get the reward they must keep returning until they happen upon one once more.

However Dr McMahon also believes psychology could be the undoing of Facebook, especially as its membership expands more and more.

As he sees it human brain’s ability to interact properly with a limited amount of people means that a list of ‘friends’ beyond a certain number becomes pointless. As the noise level increases people begin to share and communicate less – and what they say gets noticed less by others – and so the rewards of being on the site decrease.

Mix this in with a growing unease over privacy and you may have a potent combination for a mass exodus from the site.

“Facebook doesn’t recognise that people’s lives are compartmentalised and what I want to share with one group of friends I may not want to share with another,” says Dr McMahon. “If a site can come along that can offer that in a very user-friendly way as well as strong privacy options I think it could do very well.”

Dr McMahon reckons that understanding the motivation of the average Facebook user will help him to predict when this is going to happen, although he says he is beginning to believe that Facebook is here to stay even if it does become less popular in time. He also points out that it could be a lucrative thing to know what the ‘early adopters’ – those who tend to use services or devices before they become mass-market – want as it will make it easier to see where they are going next.

So is there a challenger to Facebook’s crown?

Well MySpace is still trying hard to regain its lead but the site was never a strong player in Europe and has a lot of ground to make up even in the USA. A new start-up called Diaspora is creating some buzz, however, as it promises to have privacy at its heart and will be open sourced allowing a greater degree of transparency than anything Facebook offers.

Diaspora is being run by four New York University students and recently raised $100k in funding to get the project started. They hope to have an early version of the site up and running by September of this year.

However while privacy is expected to be a divisive issue for Facebook users as time goes by – and possibly something that draws many people away – Dr McMahon says he sees the next big thing as being build around geo-location technology similar to what 4Square currently does. This is where people log their location via mobile, letting followers know where they are and what they are doing.

“If someone can figure out how to put that on a basic phone and create a way to give people real rewards for using a service like that I think it could really work,” he says.

Whether the average user would feel as comfortable with everyone knowing their exact location remains to be seen, however.

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