I am often asked if the debates, discussions and controversies raging on social media are representative of the concerns of the general public. The question is whether social media truly reflect what people say and think in the real world.
To all those who ask themselves that question, even if only occasionally, the answer is NO!
Absolutely not. And I say that without hesitation.
We can examine this question two ways: purely quantitatively or more qualitatively.
Our studies indicate that among all social media users, three out of ten (29%) post comments, opinions or content of some kind; seven out of ten (71%) are happy to read what others are saying or observe what they find there without commenting.
Consequently, the debates, discussions and controversies we find on social media are the views of a minority of us (a phenomenon that is, curiously, only slightly more pronounced among young people).
Therefore, one must be very careful before generalizing the concerns expressed on social media to the general population, since those voicing their opinions represent fewer than one in three people in the population.
On the other hand, if each of these individuals were randomly selected, reflecting all the different characteristics of the population, we could say that they truly represent a very large sample and that we could consider them as representative of our entire society. But that's really not the case.
Despite differing very little from the general population on a socio-demographic and socio-economic level (perhaps a tad younger, and no differences in Quebec in case you were wondering), in terms of personal values, hot buttons and motivations, they are highly distinctive!
Above all, they express themselves on social networks ... because they have a powerful need to express themselves, to speak out! The content they post is secondary to their urgent need to be heard, to have a platform!
What's more, those who have this need to express themselves on social media do so relatively often. They are strongly overrepresented among those who log in to the various social media platforms at least once a day, if not several times a day.
To avoid overwhelming you with too much data, I have crossed in the table below those who post content at least daily with those who only view content, by how frequently they make use of the various platforms. This makes their busy usage all the more obvious!
When we analyze the values of the people who post/share on social media, we clearly see that we are dealing with a very specific group of individuals.
They are characterized notably by five types of motivations, three of which predominate (the first three in the list below):
- First and foremost, a need for recognition, to be admired by the people around them, as well as by society in general. A need to feel proud, to be praised, to experience status recognition. People feel proud of themselves when they think they have said something "significant" on one (or more) of the platforms they use.
- A need for stimulation, to be on the leading edge of whatever is new and innovative, both on the market and in society, especially the latest products and services, which is what engages people in these discussions. This expectation expresses a need for gratification, as well as a need to feel proud: they want to be the first to take advantage of these innovations and sources of gratification ("Early Adopters").
- A need for self-expression, to express their uniqueness, creativity, their sense of being special and a need to express this loudly and clearly. Again, social media gives them a way to fulfil this need for self-expression.
- A need to connect with others, to cultivate their network, to maintain emotionally meaningful relationships with others.
- A desire to help improve the world ("changing the world" may be a little presumptuous).
Curiously, the latter two motivations are less pronounced among the most active social media users, but very apparent among the less active users.
The following tables present the results of a few questions measuring some of these motivations, crossed by the most active users of these social platforms.
The indicators expressing a need for peer recognition have markedly higher indexes for the frequent (daily) users of social media networks, which leaves no doubt as to their motivation. Clearly, there is some vanity involved here!
People post/comment to be recognized, regardless of the topic being discussed. At times, the vehemence surrounding certain issues offers them a great opportunity to loudly proclaim who they are, no matter the issue at stake!
It is also interesting to observe the convergence in the social media platforms. We searched in vain for differences in what motivates the use of one network over another. On a tangible, concrete level, the platforms have different uses, but the deep motivations for their use are the same for all of them: the need for self-expression and the inspiration to speak one's truth!
The diverse points of view found in our society cannot, therefore, be expressed in a representative way by the people who post or share content on social media. While we should take what they say into account, they represent only one, albeit a particularly loud, voice. But they do not represent public opinion.
How many times have business owners called us to say that their brand's reputation was in tatters because of a social media controversy. After we checked with (polled) their stakeholders, it turned out in most cases that only a small minority shared the accusations against them.
So yes, we must pay attention to what's being said on social media, but we must also learn not to give it more weight than it's due.