Sharing is at the heart of all social behavior.
Humans have been sharing for longer than we can remember. And it isn't just humans who share, either. Sharing has been observed in all sorts of animals, from insects to birds and mammals. At the most fundamental, evolutionary level, sharing food and resources helps us survive.
What about in modern life?
Today, the Internet enables sharing to take place at breakneck speeds. According to Internet Live Stats, there are on average over 8,000 tweets per second, every second. And the number just keeps growing.
But why do people do it? Why do people start blogs, post updates to Twitter, write books, tell stories, post comments on YouTube? What are the motivations underlying the behavior?
According to research by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger, there are 5 reasons that explain why people share:
1: We share to look good (Impression Management)
An August 2014 study by Camp Mobile found that young adults (nicknamed the "Selfie Generation") share pictures of themselves more than any other type of content on social media sites.
Why? There's a good reason. Sharing a photo of yourself on an exotic beach or at an expensive restaurant makes you look good. It's a quick and powerful way to influence how others see you (and even how you see yourself).
In 1959, a sociologist by the name of Erving Goffman wrote a book titled The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life. He used theater as a metaphor to describe how we all develop our personal identities by presenting them to others.
Within this popular framework, sharing is one of the ways we perform our identities. We use tweets and Facebook shares and even regular gifts as a way of saying "This is who I am."
When experimenting with different ways of measuring reader attention, viral news site Upworthy discovered that a large group of people share articles without even reading them.
In short, many of us don't actually share what we read, we share what we want others to think we read.
2: We share to feel good (Emotion Regulation)
Ernest Dichter's seminal 1966 article on word-of-mouth advertising had this insight: "... it is talk about the product which confirms for the speaker his ownership and joy in the product, or his discovery of it."
When you've just come back from a great vacation, you tell your friends about it. This helps you relive and revive the happy feelings you felt during the trip.
On the flip side, if you've had a bad experience you tell others as a coping mechanism to feel better and to fix injustice. Emotions are one of the key motivations for sharing.
In 2008, musician Dave Carroll's treasured Taylor guitar was broken during a trip on United Airlines. After talks with the airline for compensation went nowhere, Carroll decided to write a song about the incident and share it with the world.
The song went viral, getting more than 10 million views in just 2 months. It also served as a public relations humiliation for United Airlines who got in touch with Carroll to make amends. In contrast, Bob Taylor, the owner of Taylor Guitars, personally got in touch with Dave to offer him 2 free guitars.
Talking (or rather singing) about his experience didn't just help Carroll cope with the heartbreak of losing a beloved guitar, it got millions of people demanding justice on his behalf.
3: We share to teach, and help (Information Acquisition)
When Reddit user anessa_vay's boyfriend was 12, his father passed away. Burdened by the fact that they never had much of a connection, the boyfriend carried a photo of his father in his wallet for the past 14 years. The old photo was one of the few that the boyfriend had of his father, and it didn't leave many clues to where it was taken.
Hoping to find out where the photo was taken so that her boyfriend could travel to where his father had lived, anessa_vay posted the photo to Reddit. Within 3 hours the international community came to her aid and identified the obscure location, a testament to how quickly helpful information can be shared in this Internet age.
In a TED Talk titled 'The history of our world in 18 minutes', historian David Christian describes how such collective learning has helped the human species flourish and develop dramatically.
When you have a problem, you don't have to figure it out yourself. You can tap on the collective wisdom of people who have been there before.
At the heart of collective learning is the sharing of information. We share information because it helps us survive. We learn faster. We make better decisions. We accomplish more with less.
4: We share to connect (Social Bonding)
In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar discovered a link between the size of a primate's brain and the average size of its social group. Extrapolating this to humans, he proposed that people can comfortably maintain only 150 stable social relationships. This went on to become the Dunbar Number that has famously been used in management psychology and pop culture.
In a subsequent research paper, Dunbar argues that language evolved to replace social grooming since it allows us to use our time for social interaction more efficiently. Talking and sharing with others are efficient ways of reinforcing social bonds.
A recent A.T. Kearney study found that today's global sports industry generates up to $700,000,000,000 yearly. It's hard to make sense of this eye-popping amount until you think about sports as a conduit for human relationships. When getting together with friends to talk about your sports team, you reinforce the things you have in common and that helps you connect.
We are motivated to share with the people in our lives to feel connected to them and to nurture our relationships.
5: We share to convince (Persuading Others)
In 2012, aid organization Invisible Children began an Internet video campaign about Joseph Kony, a Ugandan war criminal. Kony had been responsible for the abductions and abuse of children and other heinous acts.
The video starts off with clips of director Jason Russell's young son distraught by the information about Kony. Russell and Invisible Children created the campaign to hope to convince other citizens and the US government to have Kony arrested by the end of 2012.
When released, the video went viral and 58% of young adult Americans heard about Kony in the days that followed. The campaign successfully resulted in a resolution by the US Senate a few months later.
It's not just far-reaching geopolitical events that sharing can influence.
In 2009, Karen Bowersox noticed that Maggi, her 4-year-old granddaughter who has Down syndrome, would trip over her too-long jeans. The condition gives kids a unique body shape causing regular clothes to no longer fit well.
"My daughter said 'Hey mom, why don't you make clothes for someone with Down syndrome?' That was a wake-up call," she said. "I couldn't get it out of my head."
Fueled by her love for her granddaughter, Karen turned to Kickstarter to help fund a clothing line for people with Down syndrome. Inspired by her mission, backers shared Karen's story and helped the project raise more than four times its original target.
Sharing gives us the power to persuade others and convince them to act. A power that can change the world.
Conclusion: Sharing is a critically fundamental human trait.
We share because it's been hard-wired into us for thousands of years. Sharing is at the heart of what makes us social, and being social is what helped us (and continues to help us!) learn, grow and flourish as a species.
In the next chapter...
How do individual acts of sharing add up to become the bigger phenomena we call word-of-mouth? How does word-of-mouth 'work', and how does it shape the world we live in?
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