What Exactly Inspires Sharing on Social Media?

We all like to share pictures, videos, and news on social media. But why is that?

On social media, we all share content produced by others—brands, creators, YouTubers, friends—but why? It might be because it’s socially rewarding.

Of course, that’s not exactly what some studies say.

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For example, if you’d previously seen this infographic breaking down what motivates people to share content on Facebook, you’d think social rewards have little to do with anything. Maybe, maybe not, as that wasn’t one of the choices proposed. The choices were:

  • I share things that will entertain/interest my friends
  • I share things that inform my friends about things that matter to me
  • I share things that will elicit emotions in my friends
  • I share things that my friends will find useful

At first glance, all of this is true, but also very generous. If you think about it honestly, much of it is about value. The value of you, in your own eyes and in the eyes of others, as a person attune with interesting things—a person with convictions and humor, who considers the world we live in.

And if you push intellectual honesty a bit further, you’d admit that you share mainly for two reasons that are eminently “social” and closely related:

  • Reactions, retweets, comments, and discussions—which reinforce your self-esteem.
  • Increased visibility/popularity/influence—to your friends and/or professional circles, which increases your credibility and the volume of reactions that you are able to generate.

All while putting in very little effort, since you’re simply pressing a button. That’s the magic of social media.

The very agreed upon art of sharing:

If you admit, personally, that your credibility, reputation, and popularity are at stake in your sharing, you also understand why you don’t just share anything with anyone. In fact, you likely apply most of the rules of “the art of sharing”, described in this Harvard Business Review article. These are 17 injunctions that aim to make you a champion of high sharing spin-offs (professional, in this case): Be appreciated, be interesting, be bold, be brief, be grateful, be visual, be organized, be smart, be trackable, be active, be predictive, be a “mensch” (if you do not know what that means, that gives you more reason to read the article), be able to promote yourself, be multilingual, be analytical, be curious, and be lucid.

In practicing this art, on a professional network like LinkedIn, you’ll mainly share contents of “top influencers” or recognized authors in the “business” universe, showing that you adhere to certain values—credit in the eyes of potential employers, clients, or partners. That’s why we take so little risk on LinkedIn.

Twitter, however, is a network where the best thing you could do is share something interesting first. This is what makes LinkedIn so politically correct and Twitter so stressful—there’s less restraint practiced on the latter.

On Facebook, however, [most] people post a bit conservatively. In the aforementioned study (fractl), 52% of respondents said they did not want to share content that could cause controversy, and 65% said that certain content could give a bad image. Although a great space of freedom, there’s also great visibly on Facebook, making it an area of self-censorship.

Positive and visual content:

Ultimately, what do we really share on social media? Mainly, we share what is most easily consumed:

  • Positive content, which will be well received, and inspire equal and immediate positive reactions: fun, pleasure, laughter, hope, admiration, tenderness, etc.
  • Visual content—because, as all marketers know, the human brain identifies visuals as priorities and interprets them more quickly than text—60,000 times faster, we are reminded here.

Textual content, on the other hand, spreads a bit differently. Of course, if there’s an image attached, they’ll get shared more, especially with the way links appear on Twitter.

But, to the displeasure of those who produce them, it’s been proven that most shared articles aren’t read by those who share them. In June 2016, 46,000 people shared this article on The Science Post on Facebook after reading the headline: “Study:70% of Facebook users only read the title of scientific papers before commenting.” As it urned out, those 46,000 people shared that article without realizing it purposefully and ironically contained unintelligible nonsense—because they hadn’t read it.

Is sharing on a decline?:

It seems that after a decade of strong growth, social sharing is falling on Facebook and Twitter. We talk about “social fatigue” on Twitter, and on Facebook, “Context Collapse” (similar to but different than “fake news”). According to Viuz , the sharing of Facebook and Twitter seems to “have given way to more intimate, authentic and ephemeral modes of sharing on SnapChat and WhatsApp.” It remains to be seen whether increasing the power of these applications would preserve the intimacy and authenticity that the users look for. If not, they’ll continue to share their own content elsewhere.

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Austin is a New York based writer with a strong but healthy addiction to Twitter. When his phone dies, he'll sometimes read a book.

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