Friday, May 22, 2009


Despite an unruly travel schedule, I was refreshed by my brief visit at ICWSM (International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media) where Sam Gosling and I gave a workshop on The Psychology of Social Media. Sam introduced me as someone who straddles psychological research and applied social media, hence the title of my post.

ICWSM, is exceptional in being able to use the term social media sans baggage. That alone was refreshing; as was the unique mix of people at the conference, all with hands on various vectors of social media, if you will. As Matt Hurst says,
These include: text mining, artificial intelligence (especially NLP/CompLing), psychology, graph algorithms, social network theory, data visualization/UI design and data mining. One of the major roles and purposes of the conference is to bring these areas together to better model, support and leverage social media.

Sam and I framed the workshop with the question: "What can psychology tell us about the production and consumption of social media?"

Our talk began with the idea that all social media is created and consumed by psychological beings, beings with "psychologies" that evolved long ago. Naturally then, successful social media should tap into these basic needs. Businesses too, I would argue.

Whenever people talk about psychological needs, they immediately think Maslow. While his hierarchy is intuitively appealing, empirically it hasn't exactly panned out. It's always interesting to me what has and has not leaked out of psychology. Gladwell aside, could good visualizations be predictive? 

The framework of needs Sam and I chose to talk about comes from Robert Hogan, a personality psychologist whose ideas are rooted in evolutionary adaptation. You've heard about our "Stone Age minds' before... Gist is: we've always lived in groups and our groups have always had status hierarchies. So, our main psychological motivations are (a) to get along and (b) t0 get ahead. This results in us:
Wanting to know others; and, 
Wanting to be known by others (as Sam's research shows, sometimes).
Sam discussed his research on personality perception based on Facebook profiles, websites, bedrooms, and offices; and I talked about my research defining personality with everyday behaviors and language. We both agree, one of the more interesting questions that stems from all this research is what do you need to know in order to really know someone? And now, how much of this do we get in social media? Is anything systematically missing?

Understanding psychological needs is important in designing a system, well beyond the UX. Thanks to groups like ICWSM, we can advance in applying information about how psychological information is conveyed and made sense of, at a systemic level- whether we're designing an application or a business.