We’re living in the information age. In the 21st century, thanks to the Internet, information is easy to share with our friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers. But our love for sharing is not confined to this millennium. The human species has always loved sharing information. We draw buffalo on cave walls. We pass on stories and tradition through spoken word. We copy manuscripts meticulously by hand. We invent presses and start newspapers. But why is sharing so important to the human race? Why do people share information?
Everyone knows that sharing information makes others’ jobs easier. You know something essential for your business and sharing it with another person means that they now know something essential for their business. Progress stands on the shoulders of giants.
But what you may not have considered is that sharing might make you more likely to understand the information as well. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Well, some people think sharing makes it easier to process information too. 73% of people in a New York Times study on sharing information (access a PDF of that study) said that sharing helped them understand information better. 85% said the reading other people’s responses to their shared information helps them process the information more thoroughly. One participant in the study said, “Sharing information helps me do my job. I remember products and information sources better when I share them and am more likely to use them.”
Sharing information then helps us in our work, by letting us use others as a sounding board as well as helping us retain and process information. For instance, just by sharing this information about sharing information with you, I’m absorbing and processing it all the better. And if you reply, I’ll learn even more.
Basically, like make-up and fashion, we share information because it makes us look good and it builds our identity. Lipstick makes your lips pop. Lots of black clothing establishes that you’re goth (or at a funeral.) A suit makes the man. And sharing information works the same way.
A study by Jonah Berger (which you can download as PDF from this link) calls this “impression management.” Impression management means, for example, that someone who thinks environmental protection is important may share an article about green living not just to support his identity as an environmentalist or because he thinks the article is useful (both of these are part of managing his impression), but also because his friends are environmentalists. The article is something he cares about and it also makes him look good (or at least, not bad) with his friends. He probably wouldn’t share articles about how oil spills are great for the environment.
In this global world, sometimes it’s hard to connect with friends and relatives. In that same NYT study I referenced above 78% of the participants said they “share information online because it lets them stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with.” In an example from my own life, I have a friend who lives far away. A while ago she shared this video with me because she knows I like otter. (Watch it. It’s adorable. And I need to maintain my identity as a person who loves otters and cute animal videos.)
She shared this to say, Hey! I know we don’t talk much, but I’m still thinking of you in a personal way.
Connecting through information also makes people feel like they’re part of society, according to 69% of people in the study. That means sharing information with friends and those who share a similar interest. When you share information, sometimes that starts a discussion and that fulfills the very human need to communicate and be involved.
Some people share because it makes them feel better. The Berger study calls this “emotional regulation.” People might share a recent tragedy in their life to garner emotional support or repost an article to rant about its contents. They may share recent tragic news to process its effect on their life or to glean others opinions.
In the end, sharing information is a need as old as human history. And we’ll continue to share information long into the future. Leveraging that need is a great way to start or build your community. Make sure that your community helps or furthers one or more of these reasons for sharing information. For instance, I think one of the reasons Facebook is so successful is that it does a superb job of helping us maintain our identity.
Why do people in your community share information? What information is your community platform best for sharing? Tell us in a comment below!
“Word of mouth and interpersonal communication: A review and directions for future research” by Jonah Berger (Journal of Consumer Psychology 24, 4 (2014) 586–607)
“The Psychology of Sharing: Why Do People Share Online?” by the New York Times Customer Insight Group