Back in 2009 I wrote a Master’s thesis at San Diego State University about why do people spend so much time on Facebook. I was trying to understand what keeps people checking Facebook again and again and again and forget everything they were doing as soon as they open the blue page. Where does this addition come from? So I decided to analyze different motives of Facebook usage and then correlated this data with the amount of time spent on Facebook.
After my thesis defense I was frequently asked about my findings by friends and colleagues, but I never wrote anything about them in a blog. We are now in 2014 and until recently, I thought that social media have developed so tremendously since 2009 that my research would be outdated.
But a couple of weeks ago I realized that my findings could still be interesting and might offer some insight even now. At times I even think that nothing changed since 2009 and people use Facebook the same way.
So what did I find? First, yes, the amount of time spent on Facebook is defined by the motive that people use Facebook for. Let’s say, they might use Facebook to send messages, like sms or email. Or they might use it as a portfolio to showcase their professional success. Or as a way to build personal image… So which motive is the most time-consuming? I found that people who spend the most time on Facebook simply felt bored.
I based my research on Uses and Gratifications approach, which says that people use something because they seek certain gratifications. Take as example the unconscious satisfaction you feel when you receive Facebook likes. The “Like” button was introduced in 2009 after I started the research, and it was not playing such a significant role as it does now, but there were many other “gratifications” like messages, tags, “pokes” etc.).
So I listed different purposes of why people used Facebook that they said were important to them. By means of factor analysis, I grouped them in seven types of motives for using Facebook. I classified these motives according to the time they consume: from the most time-consuming to the least time-consuming. Here’s what I found:
- Avoiding Boredom was the most time-consuming motive, it accounted for such purposes of checking Facebook as to “pass the time” and “avoid studying or working”.
- Impression Management was second time-consuming motive. This factor has some sort of narcissistic nature. It stands for creating and maintaining a certain online identity and contains such activities as uploading pictures, updating profile pictures, updating and sharing information about oneself, developing one’s artistic abilities designing the site (this relates to MySpace which was still huge in 2009). One of the most interesting responses was “making sure that I’m putting forward a good impression to my social network”.
- I called the third most time-consuming motive Insecure Comparisons, it is somewhat similar to the impression management one, but it refers more to looking at other people‘s profiles and comparing them with one’s own to understand how they perceive you. It included such answers as “getting a sense of how popular I am compared to my friends”, “making sure that my profile looks “cool” compared to my friends”, “communicating about topics that I otherwise feel awkward to discuss”, “browsing my friends’ friends”, “looking at the profiles of other people’s friends” and others.
Now, this is where I think much changed since 2009. It is important to note that all the literature that I based my research on was written in 2008 and earlier, and at that time internet mediated communication was often associated with anonymity, that in many cases does eliminate awkwardness of face-to-face communication. I believe that now Facebook is a very publicly “visible” communication channel: for example, everybody can read your comments to other people’s pictures.
However you can spend hours on Facebook browsing other peoples’ profiles and pictures and none of your Facebook connections will see it. In this respect the “Insecure Comparisons” motive has a slight analogy with the concept of “stalking”.
- The forth motive is called Academics – people said they checked Facebook to discuss class assignments, complete group projects etc. This motive demonstrated relative significance in my study because of my sample: most of my respondents were undergraduate students.
- Group or Profession means connecting on Facebook with people with similar interests or profession, searching for job opportunities and professional and interest groups, communicating with like-minded people, and organizing events.
- Then followed dating motive under which I meant searching for romantic partners. People who were referred to this factor said they often were checking out potential romantic contacts, flirting with someone they found attractive, or were just looking for “dates” or “singles”.
- Reconnection demonstrated the least correlation with time-consumption. It impliedconnecting with people with which my respondents would otherwise loose contact and maintaining relationships with people they may not get to see very often.
By the way, the average time per day that my respondents reported spending on Facebook was 91 minutes, or approximately 1.5 hours. The most common response was 60 minutes per day. I surveyed 643 people total, most of my sample consisted of university students (63% were freshmen).
Of course, Facebook is such a complex and multifunctional phenomenon in people’s communication serving many users’ needs and even in 2009 it was very difficult to analyze all possible motives. I would argue that it is very difficult for a user to answer what motivates her to check Facebook in any particular time. For example, if I post on Facebook a link to an interesting article, what motive would that be? Of course, I would expect people to “like” my link. Would that be Impression Management motive? May be.
I know that my research has many limitations because I was trying to boil the ocean tapping into many complex concepts like addition or motives at once. Of course, this is a simplification and any social science operates simplified models to study human society.
So what are the biggest changes since 2009 that would alter the results of my research? First, from a means to communicate with friends Facebook turned into a major news media source not only to journalists and PR people, but also to regular users, and that turned Facebook to a mix of Google Reader and news agency. Second, social media marketing was not so huge in 2009, there were not much ads on Facebook, no retargeting, no so much sponsored content and not so many marketers were fighting to grab eyeballs by means of creating catchy and shareable content. Third, if in 2009 Facebook’s status updates were limited by length, now Facebook turned into a full-fledged blogging platform. Another change is that Facebook simply grew its user base exponentially, won new international markets, acquired users of different generations etc. People started to use it instead of search engines aiming not just to find answers to their questions, but to learn about personal experiences of dealing with such or such problem from people they hold in respect.
Notifications feature, geographic location, groups and pages… The list of changes is endless. It goes without saying Facebook made everything possible to keep users tuned in for as much time as possible. But people still go to Facebook because “all their friends are there” and they want to connect with them.
Thanks for reading! 🙂
P.S. By the way, you can check out my complete thesis here: Galina Shmeleva_Thesis_Time on SNS