Nathalie Nahai the web psychologist (courtesy of Waggener Edstrom)
Do people behave differently online and offline? What makes us so addicted to Facebook, email and Twitter?
In an interesting podcast episode of Mitch Joel’s Six Pixels of Separation, web psychologist Nathalie Nahai, author of the book Webs of Influence, revealed how online platforms, mobile technologies and social networks converge to influence consumer behaviours.
Mining the disparate disciplines of neuroscience, behavioural economics, user experience and social psychology, Nathalie shared some pretty interesting insights on what makes us tick online.
Online versus Offline Behaviours
A paradox exists between our online and offline behaviours.
While we are inclined to share our “best side” through carefully curated photos, texts, and videos, our likes, retweets, shares and comments may betray our true selves.
This interesting fact was revealed in a Facebook experiment in the UK. The experiment showed that a person’s online trail may actually reveal his or her sexual tendencies (straight or gay), family histories (traditional or single parent), and even employment status.
When it comes to shopping, we tend to spend considerable time browsing in a bricks and mortar shop. This is because the layout and design of the outlet tend to encourage browsing behaviours in the hope of attracting you to buy more than you intended to.
On the other hand, shopping on the web tends to be more targeted. We quickly zoom into what we intend to buy while looking up customer reviews, price comparisons and so on online.
Why Websites Need To Be Tested
This brings us to the related point of marketing.
Most brands fail in their design of e-commerce websites. This is because they choose not to do sufficient rounds of testing, iteration and analysis of web analytics.
Unlike a physical shop, web storefronts need to have sufficient cues to encourage online discovery, information gathering, and comparison before purchase. Unfortunately, these features are neglected by companies which opt for very clinical and “transactional” web designs.
Blindly following “best practices” may also not be a wise way to go. An example is the trend these days for websites to have a minimalist look with large images which bleed all the way to the edge of the screen.
While such designs are aesthetically pleasing, their lack of side bars limit the chances of consumer’s interacting with and acting on peripheral information. This could reduce the chances of landing of an online sale.
In Love with Our Phones (and Not Our Laptops)
Contextually speaking, laptops and desktops tend to be associated with work.
On the other hand, mobile devices like tablets and smartphones are more closely linked to play.
This is because many of us hold mobile devices (particularly smartphones) close to our bodies, bringing them everywhere we go at all hours of the day.
Our intimate relationships with our smartphones and tablets have reduced traditional barriers to online consumption and purchases. We tend to be more given to “impulse” purchases when swiping through our phones compared to clicking on a mouse or typing into a laptop.
This leads us to consume a lot more content using our mobile devices than our laptops.
Help! I’m Addicted to Facebook
The ubiquitous presence of mobile phones and social networks have led to a commonly seen syndrome of social media addiction.
Neuroscience have shown that social media addiction is triggered by the release of dopamine. This is the hormone which primes the body to “anticipate” a particular “reward”.
When the “reward” takes the shape of an email, like, comment or share, we get a little dopamine kick.
This outcome is further accentuated by the unpredictability and randomness of the rewards. The more “surprising” the potential outcomes – eg when we inadvertently trigger a flood of responses from a Facebook update – the stronger our addiction to these positive strokes.
Known as a variable reinforcement schedule, such random rewards tend to stimulate more powerful addictive triggers. This is what drives people to keep posting and sharing stuff on social media – in the unlikely event that they manage to trigger a “windfall” in responses.
Protecting One’s Identity
Finally, Mitch raised an interesting dilemma faced by everybody who has ever posted a family photo or status update on their kid.
While sharing the chronological development of our kids online may be a good way for us to preserve those vital childhood memories, doing so may inadvertently influence your child’s future destiny.
A case in point would be when parents decide to post “cute” but possibly embarrassing photos of a kid doing something silly. This may come back to haunt him or her when the child grows up.
Unfortunately, he or she would be unable to erase the episode of his or her life, immortalised by the Inter-webs.
Over sharing of personal and private info would also expose us to more targeted pinpoint marketing efforts by commercial companies. You’ll be surprised – and probably scared stiff – by the amount of information which Facebook, Google and YouTube has on us.
To prevent this, one should be more discriminating in deciding what should be shared.
Not anything and everything we feel should be broadcasted to the web. Similarly, do consider how much information on your kids, friends or family members you feel you should divulge.