The ‘periodic elements’ of social media

It’s just basic chemistry, baby!

It’s just basic chemistry, baby!

This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve kept an index card next to my home computer for the better part of a year (I know, that’s very analog of me). As I’ve poured over social media every day, I’ve used this 4×6” relic as a scorecard of all things digital.

The tweets, posts, articles, blogs, videos and Vines I’ve enjoyed have, for the most part, fallen into six categories—elements as ancient as humankind itself.

I’ve changed the categories more than a few times (hence the cross-outs on the card), combined some and gotten rid of others, but these six have survived my Sharpie’s merciless scrutiny…

1. AMUSEMENT

I think this is one of the biggest reasons people indulge in social media. Just this week, people sent me hysterical video clips, slideshows of breathtaking photography, cleverly written one-liner tweets that broke the grind of my day and so much more. We all get stuff like that, we pass it around, enjoy and share it.

Some of the great epic poems of literature went “viral” for the same reason, passed from generation to generation. The great Greek poem The Odyssey—a massive work and a cornerstone of Western literature—was originally read or sung to people. The love of amusement or engagement has always been wired into us since ancient times.

2. TRIBALISM

LinkedIn groups, sports fans, people from the same town or high school, folks who work in the same industry or play the same music, the list goes on—humans are tribal by nature and have always gravitated toward others who share their interests. And unlike anything else in human history, the Internet and social media make finding those kindred spirits easy.

Here’s a strange example. Recently, my mother-in-law asked me to sell two accordions for her. They still played well, but they were accordions. I posted them on Craigslist, thinking they’d be there for ages.

What happened next was totally unexpected. I was inundated with calls, texts and emails an hour after I posted the ad. People wanted those accordions.

I didn’t think anyone even played the accordion anymore! But, like everything else, there’s an entire community/tribe out there totally into it. I sold them both, at a handsome price, within a day. I’m still in shock.

3. CURIOSITY

Curiosity has killed many a cat, and has snagged many a human brain since the dawn of time. I’ve written about curiosity before, because I think it’s one of the most powerful communications techniques out there. It’s used everywhere—the cliffhanger at the end of a TV drama… the twisty, unfolding plot of a classic novel… and countless daily headlines in social media.

I think the champ of curiosity is the Huffington Post. Here are three headlines of theirs I saw the other morning:

  • What your earwax says about you
  • Surprising religious facts about U.S. presidents
  • The crushingly expensive mistake killing your retirement

There’s a great lesson in headline writing there. You see the curiosity technique in blog writing all the time.

People use curiosity subconsciously, I think, in their personal social media, too. Try it yourself. Write a post on Facebook that says, “After today, things will never be the same for me,” and see what happens.

4. SELFISHNESS

Yes, even though we’re tribal by nature, we often have a need to stand out in that tribe, too. So, we brag about our recent promotion; post videos of our abundantly talented children; swap out selfies every week; and philosophize, ad nauseum, on the hot topic of the day. People are self interested and always have been.

I do find something curious about this phenomenon. (There’s curiosity again!) In the past, people were often criticized, corrected or even ostracized for being selfish or narcissistic. Imagine, 20 years ago, if you had posted dozens of self-portraits all over your cubicle walls. You would have been laughed at or, at the very least, thought of as strange. Yet today on social media, it’s readily accepted. Interesting, right?

5. SELFLESSNESS

This is the flipside to our self-absorption. Think of how often people genuinely share things to make our world better in some way. This can range from simple how tos to igniting entire movements online.

A friend of mine uses social media to save stray, sheltered or abused animals. She not only fosters half a dozen dogs at a time, she also posts animal advocacy and adoption links every day. Her mission is to make life better for animals everywhere, and she’s found happy homes for dozens of them.

6. INCLUSION

Yes, you can definitely link this to tribalism. We all want to have a feeling of belonging to something—whether that’s family, friends, community, or some other group. But, there’s another aspect—unique to our digital age—that fuels this: The fear of missing out.

As a society, we’re constantly abuzz about something—the crazy weather… some chuckle-inducing meme… a recent news event that has collectively shocked us. Not knowing something requires an instant update from the person you’re talking to or a quick hit to Google on your phone. Everyone wants to be in the know—it’s an important social currency that makes us feel like part of a larger fabric, yes. But it also helps us feel up-to-date in constantly changing, uncertain times.

These six social media elements are among the reasons social is here to stay. It will certainly evolve and take different forms, for sure. But amusement, tribalism, curiosity, selfishness, selflessness and inclusion are basic chemistry of the human psyche—originating in our species’ early days, when we were huddled around campfires, under starry nights.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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2 Comments
  • Would have to agree with you on this one. I have a middle-aged friend who strangely keeps doing this because she “lives” for the attention of her status updates (kind of pathetic, but it does happen). She posts something, if nobody reacts to it, she’ll like her own status and even ask friends if they already read her status for the day. Tsktsktsk.

    17 March, 2014 at 2:59 pm
  • Well thought out tips� thanks!

    20 March, 2014 at 2:51 pm

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