Social Media, Fame, and the Need to Belong

One aspect of social media that makes it appealing to many people is that it seems to promise an easy path to fame. Just tweet something funny, post a cool video, or write something insightful, and you’re an instant success. If what you post is really good, you gain likes, followers, views, and maybe even the attention of a celebrity. Your social media presence grows and you might even become “social media famous” with thousands of likes and followers.

So why is being social media famous appealing to so many people? Of course there is the obvious reason – the hope that your social media presence might provide some benefits in the form of money, jobs, advertisements, and recognition. But there’s also a deeper, more existential reason: the need to belong. The need to belong is the need to form and maintain meaningful, positive relationships, and to feel included in social groups. Everyone has this need to some extent, but some people feel this need to be accepted more strongly than others.

People who have this strong need to belong tend to report more time spent fantasizing about fame, particularly the idea that being famous could lead to greater visibility and status. The thing about fame is that it seems to offers the ultimate guarantee of social inclusion. Being famous means that wherever a person goes, there will always be someone who likes them. Social media is a great platform for this because it allows people to share their thoughts, skills, passions and everyday adventures with a wide audience. Through the number of likes, followers, upvotes, and views, social media offers an easy, concrete way for people to know that they and what they post have been liked and accepted. It tells people that someone out there appreciates them and thinks they have worthwhile things to share.

As such, people with a high need to belong tend to post more on social media and follow more celebrities. Posting more means that a person has more opportunities to receive positive feedback on what they post and to gain a larger audience. Interacting with famous people can provide a person with the ultimate validation if a celebrity responds or shares something the person did or said. Popular figures can be seen as having very high social value with a powerful backing of adoring fans and supporters. So, when they recognize or approve of something, they transfer some of their social value to that thing, making it more special than if a normal person approved of the same thing. Posting more and interacting with celebrities helps satisfy belongingness needs because the more positive attention a person receives, the more the person feels accepted and worthwhile.

While social media can help fulfill the need to belong, it should be warned that it might not be the ultimate cure. In fact, basing social value and acceptance on how many likes and comments a Facebook post got can actually be quite damaging in the long run. The sad fact is that not everything that is posted online is going to be a winner and a “below average” post might lead a person to believe that they are not socially valued. It can also open people up to upward social comparison which might leave them mistakenly thinking that they are not worthwhile. The average twitter user has around 126 followers, but if people compare themselves to the very popular accounts with thousands and millions of followers, they might start to feel inferior. Also, if a person becomes preoccupied with achieving fame through social media, it may prevent them from forming and establishing relationships in real life and within their social network. So, social media can definitely help meet the need to belong, but over relying on it as a gauge of liking and acceptance can ultimately be harmful.

Greenwood, D. N. (2013). Fame, Facebook, and Twitter: How attitudes about fame predict frequency and nature of social media use. Psychology of Popular Media Culture2(4), 222.

Greenwood, D., Long, C. R., & Dal Cin, S. (2013). Fame and the social self: The need to belong, narcissism, and relatedness predict the appeal of fame. Personality and Individual Differences55(5), 490-495.

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