A new study out suggests that when we are looking through our friends’ updates, photos, etc. on Facebook, we show greater physiological evidence of pleasantness (as measured through facial muscle EMG responses). Why would we express more pleasantness when looking at specific information regarding one of our “friends” on Facebook?
The researchers divided Facebook behaviors into four different categories, but found that most people on Facebook spent time either social browsing — “browsing through a pool of information that involved more than one person or one type of information (e.g., the newsfeed page)” — or social searching. They suggest that social searching is different …
[It’s] an extractive information-seeking strategy, [and] is more concerned with goal-oriented surveillance, where participants moved from the general content to the pages belonging to a particular person. Each Facebook user has their own profile page where they display and disclose information related to their age, gender, educational background, employment, and romantic-relationship status, in addition to their pictures (either self-posted or ‘tagged’ by others), videos, and blog-like notes.
They studied 36 undergraduates at a midwestern university with physiological responses and screen capture data. Researchers asked the participants to spend 5 minutes at three different websites: CNN.com, Facebook.com and Amazon.com. They then measured their responses with facial EMG, skin conductance, and time spent on each individual page, and paired those with screen captures of what exactly they were doing.
They found that while on Facebook, most users spent little time communicating with others or updating their own profiles. Instead, they spent most of their 5 minutes either social browsing or social searching.
We found that participants showed greater physiological evidence of pleasantness during social searching than they did during social browsing. […]
We suggested that social browsing is a non-specific passive social information-seeking strategy indicative of ritual media use, while social searching is a more goal-directed extractive social information-seeking strategy indicative of instrumental media use.
The researchers found that social searching — looking up a friend’s specific profile information, looking through their photos, reading messages from them — is indicative of greater use of the appetitive system. If you imagine that emotion and motivation consists of two separate systems, the appetitive system is responsible for sniffing out things in the environment that promote species survival (i.e., food, shelter, sexual mates).
Of course, there’s a few limitations to this study. Thirty-six undergraduates in a laboratory setting are unlikely to representative of the Facebook population as a whole (and therefore, it’s unlikely these results are very generalizable). When I’m on a public computer (like those used in this experiment), I may do far less “private” activities (like messaging others) than when I’m in private. This sort of behavior may have biased the researchers’ findings. In addition, huge swaths of activity conducted on Facebook — like social gaming in Farmville or Mafia Wars — weren’t examined in this study. It may be that those activities also promote “pleasantness.”
Wise, K., Alhabash, S., & Park, H. (2010). Emotional Responses During Social Information Seeking on Facebook. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. doi:10.1089/cyber.2009.0365.