Social Needs

By Mark Nuyens
8 min. read Throwback

Originally titled "Eating, Drinking, Facebook," was written by me back in 2011 and delves into the role of social media in meeting our social needs as individuals. While it started as a school assignment, it has remained of personal interest to me. Looking back on it now, I find it intriguing to revisit the ideas and insights explored in the article.

Facebook, Hyves, Twitter - we can hardly ignore them anymore. They play an increasingly significant role in our lives and strongly determine our way of communication, or our social interaction. And everybody participates: Facebook alone has more than 500 million active users, and more than a billion 'tweets' are sent out into the world per month via Twitter. We often see this development in our daily lives: people busy with their iPhones or Android phones to stay up-to-date with the latest updates. Occasionally, it seems as if the online social network has become a basic need.

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a hierarchical ordering of five needs that every human always tries to fulfill. The first of these is the physiological need, or the need for food and drink. As soon as this need is fulfilled, we move on to the next need, which is safety and security. When we no longer have to worry about that, we long for social contact (think of friendship, love, and positive social relationships). Found a nice boyfriend or girlfriend and have enough friends in your life? Then you probably also have the need for status within that group of friends or within your relationship. In other words, you will want recognition and appreciation from time to time. If you can achieve this, you will likely lead a good life. However, there is still a higher level. We are talking about the need for self-actualization, or in layman's terms, 'self-realization'. So the need to develop yourself and get the best out of yourself.

You could say that most of us quickly fulfill the first two needs (food and safety). So it mainly comes down to the last life needs. Let's take another look at these three needs: social contact, recognition and appreciation, and self-realization. Interestingly enough, we see the same needs on Facebook, Hyves, and Twitter: the need for social contact can be translated into the number of online friends you have. If you are new to a social network, you will probably start looking for friends, or in this case, social contacts. Looking at the next need, that of recognition and appreciation, we see that this can be seen as positive reactions like 'Respect!' or 'Like'. This shows that you liked, found funny, or found interesting someone's message or photo. Then we have the phase of self-actualization left. But how is self-realization possible via a social network? Simple: thanks to an extensive profile page where you confront yourself with questions like "What do I like to do?" and "What are actually my interests?". Additionally, Facebook, for example, allows us to express our interests thanks to a simple 'Like' button, making us aware of the things we like again. This is also a form of self-realization, as you get to know yourself in this way.

Online social networks seem to be an excellent solution for no less than three of our life needs. The question, however, is whether everyone goes through these phases and, if so, to what extent do they do that? Can someone with 500 social contacts still need more friends? In short, will that hunger ever be quenched? The answer is yes and no. Research has shown that the average person cannot maintain more than 'only' 148 social contacts. In other words, when someone has 300 friends, they can only have real contact with half of them. This answers the question of whether everyone goes through this phase. When it comes to social contact, everyone, whether you want to or not, will fulfill this need. But how do we explain people with more than 600 friends? Are they still looking for social contact? No. Chances are they are already in the next stage, that of recognition and appreciation. They no longer collect their social contacts out of the need for social contact, but mainly to increase their status within the group.

Then we arrive at the next stage, that of recognition and appreciation. As mentioned earlier, social networks offer us multiple ways to satisfy this need. Think of the 'Respect!' button on Hyves or the 'Like' button on Facebook. But is it really possible to fulfill this need? Stine Jansen and Rob Wijnberg don't think so, as they describe in their book So I Am (2010). We humans are constantly fighting each other for recognition, for positive confirmation. Very philosophically speaking: it is a desire to be desired by another. This would mean that the 'Like' button is only enjoyable for a short time, and the 'Respect!' you get subsequently disappears like snow in the sun. The authors of So I Am agree that recognition is an insatiable need. This may sound negative, but it is actually a very positive phenomenon, as described in the book. Because the more recognition we get, the more self-aware we become.

And so we have arrived at the last need: self-actualization. Unlike the previous needs, this is not a fundamental need. In other words, not fulfilling this need will certainly not decrease your quality of life. However, there are plenty of ways to achieve self-actualization. The extensive profile page was already mentioned for this purpose, where you essentially hold up a mirror and ask yourself, "Who am I really?" But nowadays, it seems to revolve strongly around what you find fun, good, cool, funny or interesting. It's no surprise that companies have completely focused on the consumer and their ambitious need for self-actualization. For example, in 2010, Microsoft launched the Windows 7 Phone. This mobile phone seems quite normal at first glance, but it stands out strongly from its competitors. The user is able to customize almost everything according to his personal preferences, making each phone different. The phone becomes a reflection of you as a person. Media scholar Marshall McLuhan described media as "extensions of our senses," and then the phone would be an extension of our speech7. But this phone would also be an extension of our personality and identity. In addition, creativity is a strong characteristic of self-actualization, according to Abraham Maslow, so the idea of designing your own phone is primarily a form of self-actualization.

But not only Microsoft seems to have noticed the trend of self-actualization. For example, LinkedIn has launched a website where you can see what kind of "brand" you are, or in other words, how you are in the workplace. By answering a number of questions about yourself, you will find out whether you are an Alternative Thinker, Global Guru, or for example, a Multibrand. Apparently, people also want to be able to develop themselves in a business sense and not just have a phone that matches their tie.

The need for self-actualization seems to be growing. People want to know more and more who they are and what they want. All thanks to the online social network? Probably not. But they have certainly helped us to achieve this basic need in the first place. Long live Facebook.