The psychology of posting
People often share aspects of their lives online, allowing them to connect to their followers through likes and comments.
Amanda Holmquist sits at her desk in the Letterman Communication Building at Ball State, where she is the assistant director of marketing and communications. She begins her lunchtime routine, pulling out her iPad and bringing up an episode of Gilmore Girls. She reaches for her orange and yellow quilted lunchbox, unzipping it and placing the contents on her desk.
Rather than grabbing a calorie-rich lunch, Amanda does what she calls “desk lunch.” She looks down at her tupperware container full of brussels sprouts and chicken breast and feels proud for making a healthy choice. She grabs her phone, holding it up to capture the moment with a triumphant selfie. She posts the picture on Instagram and Facebook, almost immediately receiving likes and encouraging comments from friends and family.
Amanda enjoys posting health and wellness content online alongside her own personal progress, and because of her job in marketing, she has a better idea than the average person about what posts will get the most attention. She also knows that posting at certain times of the day make her content more accessible to more people. The more people who see her fitness posts, the more people there are to hold her accountable to her goals.
According to Ipsos, the third-largest market research company worldwide, every age group shares something online. Whether people share selfies, articles, fitness tips, or important information, they have a reason to post. Getting likes or comments on a post can feel great, but that’s not the only reason most people share information online.
According to a study by Scientific Reports, people go through a cognitive process of weighing the pros and cons of sharing information, even if they don’t realize it. The brain also examines how posting will make them feel and what they have to gain or lose from sharing. When someone does hit the share button, according to Ipsos, they most likely found that content funny, interesting, or important. By sharing things that are important, people can connect, motivate others, and find support online.
Sometimes, getting up at 5 a.m., working out, taking care of two kids, studying for a master’s degree while working full time, and staying healthy can be a lot to manage for Amanda. But she continues to power through it with the help of social media.
Amanda posts her workouts and meals on Facebook and Instagram almost every day. Her followers have come to expect the posts. When she began a PiYo program (which combines pilates and yoga), several people stopped her in the hallways or reached out online to see what she liked about it and ask how they could get started.
She works hard to continue her progress—not only for herself but to show others they can do it, too. When skipping a workout seems appealing, Amanda thinks of the people who ask her about her programs. Is skipping a workout worth telling them she quit?
No. She’ll push through.
A 2001 study published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise journal revealed that people who regularly see the healthy habits and exercise tendencies of their friends are more likely to have active routines themselves.
Amanda knows people might get tired of her constant posting, but she doesn’t care. Posting her progress makes her feel good. If she worked out and ate healthy foods when she didn’t want to, she wants people to know about it.
Melinda Messineo, chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Ball State, says this type of posting is common and can help people reach their goals. Trying to see progress in person can be frustrating because improvements are often gradual, making it hard to see a significant change. But looking back at pictures or posts online can show change more dramatically and inspire people to continue.
Meagan Fisher sat in the vinyl dentist’s chair waiting to have her teeth cleaned. The hygienist walked in, and they exchanged polite greetings. Beyond that, she wasn’t really sure what to talk about to cure the awkward silence. But before she could come up with something about the weather, or another generic topic, the hygienist began talking about Meagan’s recent wedding photographs.
Though the two weren’t friends on Facebook, the hygienist had seen the pictures on the wedding photographer’s page. If she hadn’t mentioned the pictures, Meagan never would have began talking about the wedding or how she and her wife were looking to buy a house. A post on Facebook connected these two people and gave them something to bond over.
Messineo says finding information about strangers on the Internet has become common. While Meagan’s experience with this was good, this isn’t always the case. Messineo believes the lower standard for privacy in today’s culture might be changing the way people communicate.
Meagan often posts to connect with friends, and one way she does that is by encouraging people to meet up at locally owned coffee shops, stores, or bars. According to a survey by Ipsos, 30 percent of all people who share content online do so to support businesses. Meagan does this by updating her status to reflect where she is geographically, a process known commonly as “checking in.” This lets her advertise for small businesses downtown. Sometimes she just wants to let people know she’s out having fun or send a mass invitation for people to join her.
One night, she was out at the Mark III Tap Room having drinks. She checked in as usual. Within an hour, a co-worker arrived with his girlfriend saying he had seen Meagan’s Facebook check-in and wanted to hang out. She hadn’t seen him in a while and was definitely surprised, but they had a great time.
“Checking in” isn’t always meant as an invite, Messineo says. The feature can also be a way for people to show that they have friends and do fun things. This helps their profiles portray them in a positive way.
Meagan also enjoys posting funny, relatable things to connect with people. She says sometimes you post a selfie that looks great and you know it. Other nights, you post a picture of yourself in pajamas, eating a bowl of cereal at 9 p.m. because that’s just life. She enjoys making people laugh, but she sometimes worries they might think the funny side is her whole personality.
Messineo likens the “digital selves” people portray in online profiles to prisms that separate white light. Social media show fractions of our lives. Who we are on Facebook might differ from who we are on Linkedin. Someone’s online presence isn’t inaccurate, she says, but it is often incomplete—one color in the spectrum. When we treat people according to their digital selves, we don’t acknowledge the whole person.
A few years ago, Meagan went out to a local bar called the Fickle Peach with some new co-workers. A man from her office approached her, talking about some of his work that had been published on the front page of the newspaper.
Suddenly, the conversation shifted. The man began to ridicule Meagan, criticizing her appearance until she couldn’t take it anymore and left the bar. She says this man was known around town for treating people horribly and was often in trouble with the law. After he was arrested recently, Meagan posted on Facebook about how he had treated her and how happy she was that he was in jail.
Though the man will never see that post, venting about him online felt great for Meagan. The feeling was similar to writing a journal entry or angry letter. Research supports the positive effects of journaling to release emotions, Messineo says, and online posting can act as an extension of that.
Unlike a letter or private entry, Meagan’s post resonated with a lot of people. The post received ninety likes and a string of comments from people with similar stories. Even though Meagan had a negative experience, it connected a massive amount of people in a positive way and helped them feel less alone in their experiences.
According to an article published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, posting Facebook statuses more frequently throughout the week can lead to decreased feelings of loneliness. Something as simple as liking a picture or commenting on a silly status can help people feel more connected.
Isabel Fernandez usually doesn’t put much thought into what she’s posting. Like the 71 percent of teens who use multiple social media platforms, according to Pew Research, she normally just scrolls through sites. She likes photos, watches videos, and shares things she finds funny.
There have only been three times when she hesitated to post.
One night, driving around town with her best friend at 11 p.m., Isabel couldn’t stand the burden of keeping her bisexuality a secret anymore. It had built up inside her, and the pressure was too much to take.
Isabel’s friend convinced her to call her mom and open up right then. Reassured that her mom still loved her and was comfortable with her daughter’s bisexuality, Isabel finally found the confidence to come out entirely. She felt ready to post the news on Facebook and received nothing but support.
Isabel also shared about her struggles with sexual assault in a Facebook video. In the video, Isabel holds a bouquet of red, blue, green, and yellow balloons that stand out against the field surrounding her. She releases them in the last frame, watching them float up and away. She felt like releasing the balloons symbolized her moving on.
“When I was raped, I was in a bad place for a very long time,” Isabel says. “Letting go and publicly sharing what I had been through and simply knowing that others had been through it, too, helped me feel like I was okay and was going to continue to be okay.”
Isabel wanted to help others by sharing her experience, but she didn’t expect to receive so much support from friends and other survivors. She posted, in part, because she didn’t want to feel alone. When people began messaging her with their own experiences, she realized she was helping prevent them from feeling alone as well.
Sharing traumatic events online can have real benefits, says Messineo. Social media give survivors a platform to reach out and be heard, sharing their stories on their own terms. Posting publicly also relieves them of having the same uncomfortable conversation multiple times.
Isabel recently shared her journey of fighting addiction and staying sober online, posting, “Today marks two weeks of sobriety for me!” The post received 148 likes and several supportive comments from people telling her they were proud. Isabel responded in gratitude.
While the public comments were supportive, however, several people privately messaged her with incorrect assumptions about what she was addicted to.
Messineo says that posting through a recovery journey can show how far the person has come, and make them feel good about their journey, which might be a reason to post. But looking back at negative posts can be detrimental to these efforts, which is why Isabel strives to post positively as much as she can. Even so, posting about these things publicly did make it easier for Isabel to share her story and have everyone know at once.
According to Pew Research, 79 percent of online Americans use Facebook. Seventy-six percent of those users visit the site daily, and 55 percent are on multiple times throughout the day. Posting information online almost guarantees that the people who keep up with Isabel’s life will see it.
Messineo says that when an individual shares a personal story on social media, it can help them to take back what happened to them. They can frame and share it in an authentic way, rather than letting people develop their own opinions—which may be skewed.
According to Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans use their phones to post pictures, share videos, or comment on things happening around them. Tools like status updates and check-ins have changed the reasons we post and, in turn, created a new sense of community and belonging.