Earlier this year, Facebook changed its mission statement from “making the world more open and connected” to “bring the world closer together.” But how do you actually bring people closer online?
Look no further than the strategy teenagers have applied for decades to create close relationships: they play Truth or Dare. While this sounds like a joke, there’s actually psychological significance to a group of teenagers blushfully admitting how many people they’ve made out with. When you reveal information about yourself, you’re creating a bond with others. Or, as academic Monika Taddicken wrote, “Self-disclosure is a precondition for any social relationship.”
Online relationships are no different. One of the surest ways to bring people closer is to encourage them to share personal information, feelings, or opinions with each other. Plus, the research shows that when communities begin to share openly, products and companies see two massive benefits: engagement and referrals.
Below, I dive into the specific benefits of helping people open up to each other and how you can build products to encourage these interactions.
The Power of Self-Disclosure
What do I mean by self-disclosure? Self-disclosure is simply revealing information about yourself to other people. When you post vacation photos on Facebook, share a career milestone on LinkedIn, or create a story on Snapchat, you’re revealing yourself to the audience of people in that network. This doesn’t have to be secretive or sensitive information; it might be something like where you grew up or what you studied in college. The key is that you’re making yourself vulnerable, at least slightly, to other people.
One online medium in particular has taken advantage of the power of self-disclosure: blogging. Many successful bloggers have become comfortable sharing everything with their audiences; the reward is a highly-engaged, trusting community. For example, massively popular tech and business blogger James Altucher is known for disclosing everything, from business failures to divorce and thoughts about suicide. In a post titled, “What’s the right amount to bleed?” Altucher wrote:
“Reveal enough so that we can see how you are not perfect. How you learned from it (or not). How you still moved on and tried to be honest. Honesty gives your words power. It makes your clients and friends trust you.”
Altucher’s advice, along with his blog, offer an excellent example of how self-disclosure creates closeness. Within your product or community, your goal should be to help people feel comfortable sharing with others to create the honesty, trust, and closeness that Altucher describes.
The Benefits of Self-Disclosure
From the research on self-disclosure, we know that not only does it bring people closer, but it creates real business benefits. In fact, the two primary benefits are some of the most highly desirable outcomes for any tech product: engagement and referrals.
As venture capitalist Sarah Tavel has written, engagement is the “fuel to an enduring, billion dollar business.” Does bringing people closer together increase engagement? Of course it does. This is something we understand intuitively from our personal relationships. Who knows more about you than anyone else? Your close friends. And who do you engage with the most? Your close friends.
For proof, look no further than a 2015 research study that confirmed the link between engaged communities and how willingly users share personal information with each other. In the conclusion of their paper, the researchers explained:
“In online communities, when users disclose more personal information and constantly interact with other participants, the intimacy among them increases, which further causes users to use online communities more frequently.”
Here’s another important observation about self-disclosure: People who share a lot about themselves are more likely to tell others about the products they use. This observation was supported by a 2016 research study on consumer behavior. The study suggested that, contrary to many marketing beliefs, it’s not just the relationship with a brand that makes consumers likely to share. Instead, consumers are more likely to share if they have high levels of self-disclosure and a “need to belong.”
The researchers suggest that as customers interact within a community, they feel comfortable sharing more about themselves in and outside of that community. Products and companies can use this information to focus on building safe communities for conversation. Within those communities, customers will find opportunities to engage; the engagement and intimacy enables customers to feel more comfortable talking about a product with others.
A Virtuous Cyle
Perhaps the most notable benefit of bringing people closer is the virtuous cycle that results. As people feel more comfortable sharing with each other, the result is simply an increase in sharing.
For example, consider how conversations occur in a community like the subReddit “Get Motivated.” One person, the “Original Poster” might share a story about how they have trouble getting up in the morning. Even though this Reddit user is hidden behind a username, he or she is disclosing personal life details about sleep habits and routines.
Then, in turn, other Redditors respond to the original post, many sharing stories of their own. As people tell their stories, trust and intimacy grows, making people more likely to tell their stories again in the future. The result is clear: When people feel comfortable sharing information about themselves in your community, the positive engagement can build exponentially.
Design that Brings People Closer
Now we understand the psychology and its benefits — how do we build it into a product? Psychologists have studied this question and, while there are many factors that encourage people to share openly online, three major insights stand out: 1) Social Context, 2) Social Presence, and 3) Simplicity.
1) Social Context
In many ways, social context has become a standard for online relationships. Social context simply means allowing users to share important information that others miss because they can’t actually see each other. Profile images and avatars offer social context, as do bios, location, and even how long a person has been a member of a community. Especially on a service like Twitter, where you’re likely to interact with people you’ve never met before, social context is critical.
While Twitter famously limits the number of characters we can use to talk about ourselves, it offers a surprising amount of social context in that small space. Just take a look at this short bio page for Megan Quinn, who Twitter suggested that I follow:
In one quick snapshot, I know: Where Megan works and has worked, a few things she likes, where she lives, who she’s in a relationship with, and some people who follow her. Now I have a sense of who she is, based entirely on information she’s shared publicly online. When you’re building social context in your product, it’s important to not only give users space to create this context, but also help them understand why the context is necessary. In this case, Megan shares information so that when people interact with her on Twitter they can have some idea of what’s important to her.
2) Social Presence
A second factor that psychologists have found to increase online sharing is social presence. Closely related to social context, you can think of social presence as the design concepts we use to lessen the time and physical distance between two people. One of the classic elements of social presence, now used by every major messaging app, is the “typing awareness indicator” — the small words or bubbles telling you that your friend “is typing.” The indicator is important because it creates a sense of presence — you feel that the other person is actually there — instead of just reading inanimate words on the screen.
Another great example of social presence is found in a recent mobile design update from Facebook. In an effort to make Newsfeed comments more “conversational and engaging,” the Facebook design team abandoned the classic, boxy, forum-style comments design in favor of the bubble format we typically see in messaging apps. It’s a slight change, but the effect on social presence is clear: Users can feel that friends are actively chiming in to discuss the topic, with less hesitation caused by the awkward asynchronous conversation style that we typically see on the internet.
The third factor that encourages self-disclosure in a product or community, backed by research, is “perceived ease of use” or simplicity. We have a natural tendency to hesitate when we use new or complex products, but if the product is simple then we are much more likely to share information within it. There’s probably no greater example of simplicity facilitating disclosure online than Craiglist.
Since Craigslist began in 1995, its layout and design have essentially stayed the same, with a simple list of items for sale. But the popularity of the website, along with its simplicity, has led to many people sharing personal information in an effort to meet other people. Some of the most famous examples of this can be found in the “Missed Connections” section of the site, where users attempt to find strangers they met in passing — on the subway, at the grocery store, etc.
The Ethics of Self-Disclosure
As a final note, I think it’s important to emphasize that when we design products and communities our goal should be to help people. Many of the principles I described above can be used to take advantage of people, but to do so would be manipulative and absolutely unethical. As we know, the same strategies of psychology and social persuasion can be used by our most benevolent friends AND the most successful con artists. Remember to carefully consider Nir Eyal’s Manipulation Matrix before building a product that has the potential to harm people.