Like me! Like me! Doing business in the Facebook age

Like me! Like me! Doing business in the Facebook age

Summary: Social media is infiltrating business and changing the way we work. But the psychology of Twitter and Facebook boils down to a number of essential truths: power and relationships matter.


When the reasons for the enormous success of Facebook are being listed, Mark Zuckerberg's coding skills are usually somewhere near the top.

But it's possible that another less well-known part of his studies also played an important role in the success of the world's most popular social network.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg applied the principles of pyschology to Facebook. Image credit: James Martin/CNET News

At Harvard, Zuckerberg registered for a double major in Computer Science and Psychology, and when speaking to students at Brigham Young University last year, he outlined the importance of psychology to Facebook.

"[What] is really important about psychology is that all these problems, at the end of the day, are human problems," he said at the BYU Tech Forum. "That's one of the core insights that we try to apply in developing Facebook... the things that people are most interested in are what's going on with the people they care about, and a lot of that information isn't on the internet today.

"It's all about giving people the tools and controls that they need, to be comfortable sharing the information that they want... A lot of what we are doing is as much psychology and sociology as it is technology." 

Most of the discussion around social media has been on the technology that has made these networks successful — and the vast fortunes they have created for founders like Zuckerberg. However, there has been less focus on why we want to use them in the first place: the underlying psychology of social networking.

Research to understand our use of social networks is still in its early days. Even so, technology similar to Twitter and Facebook is already being incorporated into the business tools we use, and this inevitably has consequences for the way we behave at work.

Psychology and social networks

Our basic psychological motivation in using social networks is the same as face-to-face communication, says Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of Business Psychology at University College, London. He believes conversations on social networks are linked to meeting three basic needs: affiliation (getting on with other people), competition (advancing your career, for example) and finding meaning.

In effect, social media is a large-scale digitised way of fulfilling these needs. The most interesting of these from a psychological point of view is finding meaning, says Chamorro-Premuzic.

"Social networks enable us to explore what other people are doing, what they are like," he told ZDNet. "It's the reason we can spend ages browsing through people's accounts, because there is a lot of information about people there you don't get in the real world. It's like a window into everybody's soul."

There is an element of voyeurism built in, and social networks are clearly aware of this and respond to it in different ways. Facebook, for example, won't let you see who has viewed your profile — although scam emails claiming the contrary still regularly do the rounds. LinkedIn, by contrast, wants you to upgrade to a premium account before telling you that information.

But understanding the detail of the psychological implications of social network usage is an ongoing project. Studies of 'Generation Y' users of social media suggest that for some, these virtual relationships are bigger, more intense and have more frequent contact than their real-world interactions.

Other studies suggest that different social media networks appeal to different Myers-Briggs personality types, though most of the major networks are so widely used that defining someone's personality from the social networks they choose is impossible.

There is even research that suggests a relationship between the number of social-media friends you have and the size of certain parts of the brain associated with social perception and associative memory. 

How many friends?

In other ways, social media is little different from face-to-face conversation. For example, Facebook and other social media sites are often criticised for turning relationships into a numbers game, by implicitly suggesting the more connections you have, the better human being you are.

"A lot of what we are doing is as much psychology and sociology as it is technology" — Mark Zuckerberg

But psychology suggests that having more than a certain number of so-called friends is effectively meaningless, and that usage of social media hasn't enhanced our ability to make and retain friends. Most people have a core of five to 10 close friends, followed by a second layer of around 100 to 150 acquaintances who are still fairly relevant. Anything above that, Chamorro-Premuzic says "is just noise or just you trying to show status to others".

However, while we do not understand the intricacies of our relationship with social networks, our usage is not without its psychological risks, as Chamorro-Premuzic warns: "The danger is that people who get hooked have this narcissistic delusion... that people care about their tweets. The irony is more and more people are doing it, and nobody really pays attention to what others do."

Social media in business

All of this also goes for the business use of social networking, which is considerably behind consumer adoption. While the basic psychological motivations are the same, social media in the workplace is more complicated, in that use of it is increasingly obligatory.

For workers who have not grown up with social media this is a strain, and there are plenty of companies now offering 'social media for executives' training courses to teach CEOs when to tweet — and when not to.

Anecdotally, it seems that in business, people are far more comfortable collecting contacts in social media, even ones they don't know very well, in case they become useful later on. There's even the so-called LinkedIn Open Networkers group, who will connect with pretty much anyone to extend the reach of that network.

But social media in the workplace doesn't just mean tools like LinkedIn and Twitter: increasingly, social-media functionality is being built into business applications such as's Chatter.

As the Salesforce website describes it: "Get to know your colleagues, see how influential they are, and see if they're online right now. Find and follow peers and experts to expand your network."

The idea of such tools is to make information flow more efficiently through an organisation. But implicit in this is that building your own brand — maintaining a profile, building influence — could soon be a key part of the day job, regardless of what industry you are in.


In many respects, what these social networks do is bring to light the power relationships that exist invisibly in every workplace. An ineffectual manager may find few people 'friending' him, while a bright junior exec may find many more senior managers following her updates.

This can be good for organisations and individual workers, in that it can highlight issues that might otherwise go unseen. But just as the gamification of your social life encourages some people to acquire as many 'friends' as possible, so the gamification of work could see our value as employees (rightly or wrongly) more tightly tied to our performance on these networks.

"The danger is that people who get hooked have this narcissistic delusion... that people care about their tweets" — Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

What's measured, improves, as is well known — but just because it is possible to put metrics around the number of status updates made, or friends added, does that necessarily mean better business?

As Chamorro-Premuzic points out, being good at social networking is not enough in itself. "You can manipulate all these things," he said. "It's not a prime skill or asset on its own, but one of the things about any job anywhere in the world is that it will deal with people. So using these networks can be evidence of that skill."

Indeed, social media could skew business goals if not managed correctly, creating a professional narcissistic delusion instead of a personal one. We still don't yet understand the role of social media among consumers, so gauging its impact in the enterprise is even further away.

And for now, real-life relations still matter most, as Chamorro-Premuzic says: "Of course, a great deal of the networks and wheeling and dealings that underlie any business still happen offline. It's still your analogue or real-world connections that matter: but there is a great overlap between these things now."

Topic: Social Enterprise

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  • Excuse me? Success?

    Are you having a laugh? Did you see the IPO? Do you know how many people have stopped posting on facebook? How many people are getting sick of it?

    It's hardly a success? It was good for a while, whilst people caught up with old friends. However the "NOVELTY" is wearing off. The constant spam, the inane babbling, the likejacking, and the adverts that no-one looks at.

    It's supposed to be "social" media. Now, I don't know about you, but if I do anything socially, it's between me and my friends having a chat or a catch up. Not them trying to sell me stuff. If you and your friends went for a coffee, would you appreciate companies keep hassling you saying

    "He, your friend here liked our product, care to buy some".

    No, not really, my friend and I are friends because we enjoy each others company, and each others differences. They are not my friend because of the brand of bloody bacon they eat.

    Success my backside. Is this some kind of Facebook PR stunt? Because it sure sounds like it, only a PR man would dare call Facebook a success for business.
    • Money Grubbing

      Can't help but agree to an extent.

      Facebook does make good money, but no-where near the sustainable amount to support it's barking mad IPO value.

      **Facebook is not your friend**

      .... it is a bottom-feeding money-grubbing entity designed to snoop on you and attempt to skim it's margin off anything you do. Social Media version of Tripwire.

      My friend likes something, would kike to buy some - err no, fcuk off.

      The nefarious side of this is now appearing where 3rd party companies will now wholesale sell likes, some some marketing wanker can big up his campaign and claim success.
      Planet Money did a great expose on this a few weeks back.
      • You have no concept of how advertising works

        You'll never get results over night. Advertising is all about creating an image and perception of your company in the minds of potential customers. Doing this effectively takes years, and the effectiveness of your ads will vary greatly based on the invidivuals being exposed. For one older people tend to be less impressionable which is why most advertising is aimed at kids (even cigarettes ads used to be). Then there is the factor of people being resistant to the unfamiliar. So you have to start with a common ground that the individual already likes, and then you can edge them on into associating that likeability with your brand.
    • you're old

      Your comment shows your age. FB is still relevant to most of the younger folks. Some of them, unfortunately not all, are learning how FB works and only post "safe" information on it. So for a smart user you can get the best of FB without being used and abused.
      • Youth is Wasted

        FB is not a social media site. It is a social UI bolted onto a database that you put your data into. That data is then sold to the highest bidder. You are used and abused by simply creating an account.
        • Youth used to get out and party and get laid

          Now they sit around at home all day blabbering nonsense on FB. No wonder they're idiots.
          Cylon Centurion
      • And you are sadly naive.

        Keep dreaming kid.
      • FaceBook Self Editing

        I am an old fart and am continually surprised by the posts my nieces and nephews make so public. Our pasts always do catch up to us; but, FaceBook makes certain that one's past overtakes one.
        • Old Fart

          Sticker seen on car:

          "I'd rather be an Old Fart than a Young Dickhead"

          Def.: Dickhead describes a fictitious person whose penis extrudes from his forehead and his testicles dangle over his eyes.

          Old Fart is definitely the better choice.
  • Facebook Age... What the?!?! Dislike Button Please!

    The "Facebook Age" has come and gone... But social media remains!

    While people still continue to use it for catching up with friends, the infiltration of its use by coprorations is a sad and sorry state.

    "Liking" something, doesn't mean its a good thing... For example, who likes cancer? No one, but because you can't dislike something, people and corporations think they have a good product, even if only 100 people like it.

    "Disliking" something would allow people to have a power and a voice in actually achieving change. If people dislike a product or a statement, then people might re-think their position or maybe they might improve upon the product or statement in question based on popular opinion.

    When people talk about "like" or "dislike", it may be confrontational, but maybe google with a +1 or -1 would take the edge off the confrontational side of things, but the result is the same - just promoted differently.

    Anyway, I hope we can all keep the debate on this open as social media can be used for good, but also for the opposite - it's up to us (the internet community) to make sure we act in the best interests for ourselves and people we care about and not the corporations!!!
    • Indifference

      Unfortunately, I doubt FB would devise an 'Indifference' button to sit next to Like - LOL.
  • "Like" sheep

    To rely on "Like" to make a purchasing decision is to rely on a crowd to decide for you.
    It may appear easier, but imho the decision is potentially of lesser value.
    Call me "Old fashioned", (which I probably am) but I would rather do my own homework and draw my own conclusions.
    Crowds often get it wrong.
    da philster
  • Facebook

    anyone who don't believe its the Facebook age lives under a rock , has never seen a billboard the side of a transport truck, TV ad news paper bag of chip of frozen vegetables Facebook is every where...

    it's not old it not fading fast, it is doing just what it does best it is selling peoples attention , for the most part people dont need to be at facebook they just need an account , Likes post games fan page like groiups chat and mail are all handle outside of Facebook today ..

    inside Facebook yes it can look like a jungle of spam depending on the Aps you give approval to use or link to your Facebook data ..

    if you play the game aps if you down load and use there mobile aps if you reblog there no matter so long as there name shows up they make $$ they sell your attention to others they really dont make ther money on banner advertising of any nature they sell you and your time and interest to others..

    this is what separated Facebook from Myspace, the failure there is when it got super popular its method of making $$ couldn't support the weight of the site they created and they didnt have the money to keep up with the site and update there things it grew old when the game aps kicked in Facebook was handeling it all so much neater and cleaner ..

    Facebook developed the strategy for income that worked great the larger the population the more money it made because there was more peoples time to sell and the more it grew the more they could get paid for that attention ..

    they take what you are calling spam and turned it into big business keep in mind all the spam there is generated by the people registered to Facebook they use very scant advertising on there site :)
    • Looks like Facebook paid you your bonus for the week

      Cylon Centurion
  • Facebook

    I think Facebook is a phenomenon and here to stay, at least for a while. I don't think that they can be complacent though, look at what happened to Myspace. A new trendy social network that excites young people could easily overthrow Facebook. The psychology of Facebook works, but look at the success of Pinterest and look at the social networks in China. There will always be new threats to it's success.
  • facebook and google

    they need to be shut off for good they spy and keep your data for life they get your data to any one that ask for it companys and gov and more so i think they need to be shut down for good i am sorry but that is the way i fill
  • Facebook as Flapper

    A small but increasing number of businesses are using Facebook as the primary and in some cases, only means of directly communicating with them. Customers and potential customers MUST have a Facebook account in order to contact the company. One reason is this provides the company with more personal information about the customer than they would normally get otherwise.

    It also provides a defacto opt-in so the company can email, call, and (yes, even in this day and age) junkmail those who "like" them thus circumventing things like the Do-Not-Call Laws.
    • FaceBook

      Too true

      I do not go to companies whose only web contact point is through FaceBook
  • Oh, by the way

    Do you really think that ALL companies/corporations not monitor most of the websites and use the information they retrieve to boost their sales, etc.???? Look at the end of this article - have you not seen the "follow us" invitation(s)!!!! There are many people who actually get paid to monitor and retrieve data - - - I would bet you a donuts to a dog dung and the looser eat the stakes, that there will be a "ghost" who replies on this article that makes a dollar or two collecting data!!! Time to get real -
    • have you not seen ...

      [quote]...have you not seen the "follow us" invitations"?[/quote]

      Only if I allow them or turn off NoScript.

      Oh, thats right, how could I allow them if I don't see them to allow them. ;)
      Rob Berman