Why do people post certain images online? And how does the feedback from their social media followers impact their future posting behaviours? Here PhD student Kseniya Stsiampkouskaya details her latest research exploring social media posting and emotions, and lays out the application of her findings for practice.
More than half of all people in the world are using social media on a daily basis, making it part of their routine and seamlessly blending into their everyday lives. Apart from being a great time-sink and a popular source of entertainment, education, and procrastination – phenomena that converge in many online activities despite their apparent contradictions – social media also offers a great opportunity for personal development, building and maintaining relationships, and even earning extra income. Considering how competitive online environment can be, users interested in growing personal brands are constantly adapting and changing their behaviours to manage their social media popularity and exposure. Understanding the psychology behind such behaviours would help users to be more conscious and have more control over what they do on social media and why, and hence would allow them to design better content and engagement strategies in future.
Furthermore, platforms like Facebook and Instagram implement regular changes to keep their broad range of consumers engaged and interested. The need to attract new users whilst keeping the existing ones satisfied highlights the importance of competent and reliable user research.
With my recent studies, I set out to understand how and why people share certain photos on social media, and how the feedback they receive impacts their future posting.
I conducted two pieces of research – one qualitative study, looking at how emotions and social feedback affected social media photo sharing, and a piece of quantitative research on posting frequency and content change behaviours.
My findings contribute to the field of User Experience (UX) research by providing clear insights into people’s posting behaviours that could help social media platforms ensure continued use. However beyond these practical implications, my study sheds light on an interesting phenomenon, in which individuals increasingly operate like brands online, employing content management and audience engagement techniques that are similar to those of marketing professionals. However, emotions experienced after receiving feedback still play a large role in altering our posting behaviours and can override our consciously developed strategies for social media photo sharing.
It’s all about the audience and their feedback
We found that our participants all relied on their own basic audience-oriented posting strategy – though not as sophisticated, or perhaps conscious, as a brand’s social media output, our participants had an imagined idea of their followers and chose photos that would elicit particular responses in them.
Participants selected images that they hoped would evoke an emotional reaction in the viewer, and so intriguing, exciting and even dangerous photos were a popular choice, as well as the more obviously positive pictures. This evocation of emotion was linked to the desire for further engagement and discussion – through likes and comments.
Our findings emphasise the importance of this feedback, and show how it impacts future posting behaviour. We found that positive emotional responses are tied to higher than expected levels of feedback – if a user receives only the average amount of engagement, they feel content or neutral but if they get more than usual they are happy and excited. Interestingly, this emotional reward doesn’t encourage users to post more of the same content in future. In fact, they feel compelled to post a totally different image in order to avoid repetition and dullness, and to evoke the desired interest and excitement in the viewer. Sharing a similar photo was deemed appropriate only after a passage of time and if it was accompanied by an appropriate caption (e.g., ‘Throwback Thursday’, ‘I wish I could go back’, etc.).
Interestingly, this (intentional or unintentional) strategic behaviour is only maintained when the user receives positive emotional rewards. When users get less engagement than expected they tend to look for explanations and excuses – they often blame wrong settings and timings, but rarely the photo itself. If users continue to receive fewer likes and comments than expected, they eventually reject the need for engagement, and start posting based on their personal preferences rather than those of their imaginary audience.
But emotions matter too
We delved even deeper into the impact of different emotional responses in our quantitative study, in which we discovered that excitement and enthusiasm experienced after receiving more engagement than expected made users post photos more often. We have also found that different negative emotions had different impacts on posting behaviour.
Specifically, feeling sad and upset after not receiving expected feedback caused users to change the type of content they posted – for example, if a user shared a close-up portrait of themselves and didn’t receive enough likes and comments, next time they would post a photo with more focus on the surrounding scenery than on the person. However, feeling angry or distressed made users dig their heels in and persevere with the same type of image. This phenomenon can be attributed to self-affirmation process, whereby users are trying to reaffirm their initial choice by posting a similar photo again in hope of reaching the desired number of likes and comments. However, feeling sad and upset was a more common response to insufficient feedback than anger and distress, and therefore, users were more likely to switch to different content types after not receiving expected likes and comments.
What can we do about it?
Application to social media marketing
According to our results, if a user posted a photo with a commercial product and received fewer likes and comments than usual, they would feel sad and upset and won’t post such content again. This could be prevented in two ways. A brand or an influencer could directly tackle the issue of insufficient engagement by reposting the picture and exposing the user to wider audience reach. A more subtle approach would be to influence users’ emotions. For example, a brand or an influencer could like or comment on users’ branded posts to give acknowledgement and even offer promocodes, discounts, or free samples to occasional users. This would increase individuals’ excitement and make them post branded content more often. Whilst it is impossible to react to every single person sharing branded content, it is vital to locate the most important users in terms of spreading brand awareness (e.g. macro- and micro-influencers) and keep them happy and enthusiastic about posting branded content.
Application to UX design
Understanding how users respond to feedback both in terms of emotions and behaviour could be useful for refining social media platforms and enhancing user experience. For instance, social networking sites could ensure that users are reaching additional accounts and getting extra engagement when they start to feel less excited about sharing photos. A well-timed account exposure would boost users’ emotions and keep them interested and engaged on the platform. If this solution is not viable, platforms could develop alternative ways of making people enthusiastic about posting content. For example, an internal reward system whereby users get automated acknowledgement or scores for sharing content could make users happier and more eager to share photos. Affordances like memories and archives on Instagram and Facebook or yearly wrap-ups on Spotify can be even more effective in making users keen to post.