The demonization of technological innovations is nothing new. Radio waves were rumoured to kill birds flying through them in the 1920s. Television was supposed to herald all kinds of doom in the 1960s and 1970s, including turning children into zombies and making them go blind if they sat too close or watched for too long. Today the technological cause de celebre is the smart phone, combined with social media apps; and as with previous historical examples the generational battle lines are clearly drawn. Older generations demonise the technologically that younger generations seem naturally drawn to.

Recently, the smartphone/social media nexus has been accused of such evils as addiction, causing depression, reducing workplace productivity, encouraging narcissism, and even increasing accidental deaths (think of the potential perils of getting that perfect selfie on a mountain range or near a rushing river). But what if the ever-increasing usage of social media merely reflects the satisfaction of a very basic need? What if Facebook is essentially a good consumer product?

We all have a basic need to feel that our lives have purpose, that our past is real, that we have existed over time to the present moment and have lived a “good” life so far. This basic motivation is often referred to as ontological security and involves the development and maintenance of a self-affirming “life story”. Over the last century or so, several developments have created psychological challenges for humans; threats to our sense of ontological security.

Institutions like religion, government, family and the workplace have waned in influence in terms of providing a sense of identity and purpose in life (ie, being a devout Christian, a patriotic countryman, a good wife and mother, a successful professional and good corporate citizen). In addition, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century technological innovations have allowed humans to physically and vicariously experience far more places, people, and activities than would have been possible for much of human history. Together, these modern developments have removed traditional sources of purpose and meaning in life, while at the same time creating fragmented, incoherent memories of the past, making it difficult to construct self-affirming life stories.

Figure: Ontological security as an unconscious motive of social media usersSocial media platforms like Facebook provide idiosyncratic, marketplace-driven solutions to the modern problem of ontological insecurity. Users can capture and archive the events in their ongoing existence and retroactively access, reorganise and embellish their “life record” as they see fit. By posting this content and making it available to others in their social network, they can receive likes, comments, compliments and other positive feedback, assuring them that indeed they are living a “good” life. They can also comment on material posted by others to verify memories of the past. The past must be real because “Yes, I remember that too!”

And when it comes to perhaps the ultimate threat to ontological security – the realisation of our own mortality – social media offers a substitute of sorts for traditional religious belief. A kind of modern existential palliative. After all, who needs a belief in an afterlife if your digital self can be projected into the future long after your biological self has ceased to be?

Read the original research article: Areni, C. (2019). Ontological security as an unconscious motive of social media users. Journal of Marketing Management.

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Charles Areni

Charles Areni

Charles Areni is the Executive Dean and a Professor of Marketing in the Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He completed his PhD in Marketing at the University of Florida in 1991. Professor Areni’s research has appeared in leading academic journals like the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, International Journal of Research in Marketing, and Cognition and Emotion, and he has served on the editorial review boards of the Journal of Retailing, Psychology and Marketing, Journal of Business Research and the Journal of Advertising.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.