Ever wonder why we blog? Or where our insatiable appetite to tweet comes from? How about why we update our Facebook statuses constantly?
The first response that comes to mind is that we have an intrinsic need to share our thoughts with others and there's a particular joy that comes from enabling conversation between both friends and strangers alike through our social-media contributions.
Additionally, and even more personally, there's the lift of self-esteem one feels from reading a positive comment related to something you had a hand in producing -- be it a video, tweet, a Digg post, etc.
This serves as something inherently more than just platonic emotional validation, because at the core social media helps people grow closer and spread and build ideas.
To find the answer to the initial question though, let's track back to the theories of a man who never blogged, tweeted or created a Facebook page -- though he does have countless Facebook groups dedicated to his genius: Abraham Maslow.
Roughly 66 years ago, Maslow's "Theory on Motivation," which is kindly referred to as the hierarchy of needs, profoundly changed the way we think about human behavior. Being as it is, Maslow detailed a hierarchical progression where each level served as a right of passage before ascending to the next level. As a reminder to those who may have not taken a psychology course in a while, Maslow's pyramid began with the physiological needs of basic survival elements, progressed to the needs of security, then ascended to the need for friendship, recognition and ultimately maximizing personal potential through self-actualization.
But how does Maslow apply to the social-media ecosystem? Too often, it doesn't.
Sadly both brands and people have abused social media in the name of a cheap transaction. There is no shortage of tactical examples of brands that attempt to use social media as, in the words of Crayon's Joe Jaffe, a campaign vs. a commitment. Instead of asking themselves, "Why do I feel the need to participate in social media?" some companies (and people) have used existing communities to achieve self-serving agendas with very little benefit to those involved. In those cases, social media becomes an endless loop powered by ego and people seeking a vague interpretation of friendship through self-actualized authority: the Social Media Egosystem.
Now, I concede there are individual examples of where social media exemplifies Maslow's pyramid. Look no further than David Armano's Daniela story that became a powerful meme (and case study) on how digital communities can bond as strongly as a real-world neighborhood.
Additionally, there's the lesser-known (yet equally powerful) example of hip-hop producer James Yancey, known as J Dilla, who passed from lupus in 2006. J Dilla's legacy lives on through posthumous released records that are promoted through countless social-media blogs, communities and charitable concerts dedicated in his name. How relevant has J Dilla become to hip-hop culture? His name has transcended the music he created with fans throughout the world being spotted wearing "J Dilla Changed My Life" T-shirts.
And communities such as Kiva.org seem to touch both the lower end of the pyramid through the community based loans given to those in poverty, as well as the very top of the pyramid through the need to give back.
In my search for an answer, I stumbled upon a blog post by social-media consultant Ray Schiel, who I believe summarizes social media's need for esteem perfectly. Ray explains, "If the need to be respected and to respect others exemplifies the category of esteem needs, then social media is very much a vehicle for these as well. However, this can be a gray area for many, as we have seen countless incidences on social-media sites where the need for personal attention overshadows the need to make a personal contribution to others."
To brands that are deciding whether to dip their toes in the social-media waters, this is an extremely powerful question that no tactically focused advertising agency should solely answer on your behalf. Yes, you've got a corporate bottom line, but remember sustained, productive relationships -- which are built through commitment, not campaigns -- can pay dividends.
In closing, take inspiration from a former colleague of mine and brilliant mind, Jon Burg, who tweeted last night, "Social (media) makes us feel less alone. It turns the "I" into the "us." This is why it's so touching and amazing & counterintuitive to many businesses."
Frankly, Jon, I couldn't agree more.