In October, Facebook crossed the 1 billion-user mark. More than 500 million of those users log on to the site every day. But many of those same millions bemoan Facebook as a time-suck, tempting us to fritter away hours reading the minutiae of high-school classmates' lives or playing online Scrabble when we could be spending that time more productively on work, schoolwork or real face time with family and friends.
But something keeps drawing us in, fueling Facebook's growth from a small site serving Ivy League college students in 2004 to a worldwide behemoth less than 10 years later.
Now, psychologists and communication researchers are exploring why the site is so popular and exactly what we get out of social networking sites.
"When we first started doing this research in 2006, the popular press narratives around social media were all negative, [such as the] undergrad who lost a job opportunity after he posted a picture of himself drinking a beer," says Nicole Ellison, PhD, a communication researcher at the University of Michigan. "So, we were curious about what our students were getting out of their use — because if there were only negative outcomes, they wouldn't use it."
Ellison and others are finding that Facebook serves many purposes. It can boost our self-esteem, satisfy our need for connectedness and self-promotion, and help us maintain offline relationships.
At the same time, we don't all use Facebook in the same way, and researchers are finding that Facebook use can interact with our personal characteristics in complicated ways. The sociable, the lonely and the narcissistic among us may turn to Facebook to satisfy different needs.
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In a 2012 review article in Personality and Individual Differences called "Why Do People Use Facebook?" Boston University psychologist Stefan Hofmann, PhD, broke down the site's appeal into two areas: the need to belong and the need for self-presentation. Facebook, Hofmann says, satisfies both of those basic needs.
When it comes to belonging, Facebook use has a mixed reputation. Some people think that the site's ability to keep us in daily contact with far-flung friends and family must be a boon for interpersonal connection. But an equally plausible view is that spending so much time interacting with the digital versions of our friends leaves us lonely and starved for real-world contact.
So, which of these views is right? As it turns out, both may contain some truth, according to research by psychologist Kennon Sheldon, PhD, of the University of Missouri. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sheldon and his colleagues asked more than 1,000 college students about the intensity of their Facebook use. They also tested the students on their levels of connection and disconnection, with a scale that asked questions about how often they "felt lonely" or "felt close and connected with other people who are important" to them.
Paradoxically, the researchers found that spending a lot of time on Facebook correlated with both high levels of feeling connected to other people and with high levels of disconnection.
They theorize this is the case because two different processes motivate Facebook use: People who are lonely and disconnected spend time on Facebook to cope with their loneliness. But people who aren't lonely also spend time on Facebook, and for them the site helps maintain social connections, leading them to spend even more time there.
In Sheldon's model, Facebook does boost people's feelings of connection. "But if you're a chronically lonely person, you might go on and feel a little lift, but the chronic loneliness is unchanged," Sheldon says. "It's almost like an addiction that doesn't solve the thing that you're trying to cope with."
Sheldon backed his theory with another study, in which he asked about 100 students to stop using Facebook, cold-turkey, for two days. He tested them on a connection-disconnection scale at the beginning of the study, after they had been off Facebook for the two days and then two days later, after they had resumed use.
He found that the students' feelings of connection ("I feel close to other people") decreased over the two days they abstained from Facebook, but on average their feelings of loneliness did not change. Meanwhile, the students who felt particularly lonely and disconnected after their time away from Facebook reported sharply increased use of the site when they were allowed back on — presumably because the loneliness was motivating them to spend more time there.
An ego boost
One intuitive appeal of Facebook is interaction with fellow users — chatting with friends, "liking" their photos and posting on their walls. But a new study suggests that we gain some psychological benefit even from passively viewing our own profiles.
In a 2011 study of about 300 college students in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, Cornell University researchers Amy Gonzales, PhD, and Jeffrey Hancock, PhD, found that students who were asked to look at their own Facebook page for just three minutes showed a boost in self-esteem compared with control groups who either looked in a mirror or simply sat in a room for three minutes.
The researchers theorize that we might get that ego lift because we self-select the information we include in our Facebook profiles and post on our walls. Looking at that Photoshopped version of ourselves — our favorite flattering photos, our witty comments and musings on our recent vacation — reinforces the version of ourselves who we want to be and can have a positive effect on our self-esteem.
Of course, not all of those frequent Facebookers need the ego boost — some research has suggested a link between heavy Facebook use and narcissism. In a 2012 study in Personality and Individual Differences, Chris Carpenter, PhD, of Western Illinois University, found that people who updated their Facebook status frequently, tagged themselves often in photos and had many Facebook friends — including people whom they didn't know in real life — scored higher on a narcissistic personality inventory than people who used the site more judiciously.
Those "socially disruptive" narcissists may expect time, attention and support from others, but don't reciprocate it themselves, Carpenter says.
"If Facebook is to be a place where people go to … seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them," he writes.
Building social capital
In spite of the anti-social narcissists potentially lurking in the Facebook world, many researchers say that the site does benefit its users.
Ellison, the communication researcher, and her colleagues Charles Steinfield, PhD and Cliff Lampe, PhD, have taken a "social capital" approach to studying Facebook use. Broadly speaking, social capital is the resources, such as job leads and emotional support that people accumulate through their interactions with others.
Ellison has looked at the way people use Facebook to maintain "weak ties" to people they might otherwise lose track of. This is also called "bridging" social capital, as opposed to "bonding" social capital between close friends, and it can be useful because it can allow people to access information that they wouldn't otherwise know — such as a new job opportunity or a news story they might have missed.
As the Facebook world has expanded to include a more diverse group of users than its original college-age base, Ellison says, the social capital its users can access has expanded as well. "The more different kinds of people you have in your network, the better chance you have of getting useful information," she says.
For all of these reasons — the social capital it creates and the psychological needs it fills — researchers believe social networking is likely to just continue growing. "The concept is here to stay, because it is driven by human needs," Hofmann says.