Maslow and Social Media – Apples and Oranges

Abraham Maslow is probably most famous in psychology circles as well as general history for his foundational work on what drives people, specifically his hierarchy of needs model. Created in 1948, Maslow’s theory holds that people need to satisfy their base needs first before they can find the energy and time to focus on higher level functions. The most basic example of this model is the idea that when hungry people need to find food first before they can then think about others or work or ideals. The same model has been repeatedly carried over to other environments, including business, education, and technology.

Maslow's Hierarchy for Social Media
photo credit: BetterWorks via photopin cc

Virtual Application of Maslow’s Theory

Applied to Social Media, the theory runs into an application problem. At a minimal level, it is possible for someone to function in social media without any further action than his own. An account can be created, populated, and used with various postings and images uploaded. However, beyond that, an account-holder really doesn’t exist until he begins to interact with others in social media. Then the various tools and advantages of the environment begin to become apparent. In this respect, Maslow’s hierarchy model doesn’t work. In reality, people need higher functions of communication and interaction to survive and function in social media as well as to grow.

Maslow’s model also argues that survival is primarily individual and self-focused. In the social media world, practical survival relies heavily on others linking, commenting, visiting, and sharing an individual’s information and presence so that he becomes more involved with the environment. There is no loner-user that commands legions of “imaginary” friends and leverages the social media world all on his own (although some will argue the majority of social media “friends” have imaginary relationships with each other in virtual land).

Another inconsistency of the social media world with Maslow’s model involves the fact that behavior in social media environments don’t follow any set patterns of stimuli and response. This is an aspect that has consistently driven business marketing people nuts. Social media users act chaotically and erratically at multiple levels of interaction, generally going with whatever interest them at the moment. This type of behavior is inconsistent with Maslow’s view that people will focus on virtual survival first and then enlightenment at higher and higher levels of interaction.

Which Came First – Chicken or the Egg?

The above said, a fair assessment needs to include the fact that there’s a leap of logic assuming people in a virtual world are driven the same way as in the real world. The fact is, by the time someone has the free moments to tour around in social media, he has already taken care of feeding himself, shelter, clothes, and taking care of his significant others if they apply. He has a job or someone is paying for his income. As a result, use of social media itself is probably capable of being categorized as a higher level function of Maslow’s hierarchy rather than an environment all to itself.

So in a sense, trying to apply Maslow’s model entirely to social media is a bit like trying to make apples and oranges consistent with each other. They’re both fruit and grow on trees but very different in structure, nature, and existence.

Randy Bowden
Randy is a Principal Partner of bowden2bowden llc, a marketing and branding consultancy firm. Specializing in developing targeted marketing solutions, exceptional creative executions and solid branding strategies that give clients a real competitive advantage. Randy writes two posts weekly here, bowden2bowden blog and is the producer and host of the interview series marketer2marketer "a conversation."
Randy Bowden

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