Meeting Needs through Social Media

KARAHANNA, Elena | XU, Sean Xin | 徐岩 | ZHANG, Nan Andy

Twitter has almost 200 million users. Facebook’s customer base is even bigger, approaching 3 billion. Yet despite the staggering popularity of social media applications, it remains unclear exactly why and how people use this technology. Taking a holistic view of social media use, HKUST’s Professor Yan Xu and co-researchers developed a pioneering theory-based explanation of the psychological factors that lead individuals to socialize online.  

To optimize users’ experience on social media or even create the next blockbuster social media platform, we must understand why people log on in the first place. “Because everyone has innate psychological needs,” say the researchers, “a needs-based theory is a powerful lens to explain why people use technology, particularly in contexts where use is personal and voluntary.” Social media sites are precisely such contexts.

Regarding psychological needs as “energizing states that serve as an impetus to action,” the researchers developed a novel approach to exploring motivations for social media use. Their “needs–affordances–features” (NAF) framework identifies a set of universal psychological needs that are satisfied by the affordances of social media technology, or what a user can do using that technology. “For instance,” the researchers note, “social media offer the affordance to connect with others, enabled by, for example, features such as ‘friending’ on Facebook and ‘following’ on Twitter.” Using these features may fulfill people’s psychological need for relatedness.

“Five psychological needs,” the researchers explain, “tap into salient affordances of social media.” Freely choosing what to share and how to present oneself online may fulfill users’ need for autonomy. Interacting with other users and browsing their content can help people feel related. The need for competence can be satisfied by providing useful feedback and organizing online communities. Finally, users seeking a place and a sense of self-identity can create unique avatars and personalize their virtual surroundings.

“Given an individual’s level of psychological needs,” write the researchers, “one can predict which affordances and features of a social media application he or she is likely to use.” Through exhaustive analysis, the team identified 12 affordances that fulfill the main psychological needs of social media users. These affordances may differ widely between platforms. On Facebook, for example, the self-presentation affordance is actualized through posting one’s status and pictures. On Twitter, however, it is actualized through one’s tweets and profile. “In online games,” the researchers add, “it is actualized through creating avatars.”

To empirically test their mapping of needs onto affordances, the researchers used the novel NAF framework to identify the salient psychological needs driving Facebook and Wikipedia use. Their findings were illuminating. “Although Facebook provides multiple affordances,” the researchers tell us, “only two of these (relationship formation and communication) significantly relate to the need for relatedness.” On Wikipedia, users collaborate, communicate and browse others’ content to meet their needs for “autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-identity.”

The NAF framework—the world’s first comprehensive psychological needs based model of social media use—has the potential to define future trends in social media use and beyond. “Given the fundamental and universal role played by psychological needs in the functioning of human beings,” the researchers conclude, “the NAF logic has wide implications for research on technology acceptance and use.”


Associate Dean, School of Business and Management, Professor, Associate Director of Center for Business Strategy and Innovation
Information Systems, Business Statistics & Operations Management