Just as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory appeared in almost every graduate and undergraduate class while I was studying for my bachelors and masters in business administration from consumer behavior to organizational behavior, this month I was lucky enough to have the theory visit me twice and so becoming clear that a post on The Digital Typewriter had to be dedicated to the ever famous triangle representing the theory by the American psychologist.
At the Toronto Design Exchange Museum (Dx) graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister uses the theory (drawn on a bright yellow painted wall) at his “Happy Show” at the entrance of the exhibition. A couple of weeks later while attending the Canadian Internet Forum by Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), I could not help think of the theory in a conversation with of my fellow attendees who attributed a lot of our online behavior to the addictive nature of the web.
Abraham Maslow argues that we humans have 5 levels of needs that need to be satisfied, each superior to the other and must be fulfilled in order for the individual to move on to the next.
Despite the fact that Maslow introduced the theory in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, yet it is arguably very relevant when analyzing human/internet users’ behavior, particularly when engaging in activities on social networking sites.
On platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and others, social recognition is a pivotal element on which these platforms operate.
While Facebook has recently faced legal issues over the “Like” button after being sued by a patent-holding company acting on behalf of Dutch programmer Joannes Jozef Everardus van Der Meer acknowledging that the “like” button has been a foundation of social media s we know it, criticisms of the social networking site remain on the internet like that on CNN by Douglas Ruhkoff.
It is arguably the need for social recognition that triggers, drives and shapes a lot of users’ behavior on social networking sites, thus serving the purpose of fulfilling “social needs” as defined by Maslow, but also the “self esteem needs” as he refers to that level in his triangle. While so often recognition and acceptance go hand in hand, we might as well open the door to a plethora of behavioral theories in psychology and sociology theories that were invented decades before the internet became a part of people’s daily lives, such as Stryker’s theories on social groups and role schema or even even more recent literature such as Bettinghause & Cody on reference groups (and the list could go on), ones that become relevant in analyzing internet users as we know them today and their behavior if we revisit those theories.
Yes, it is true that as many argue that social networking sites do not constitute the whole Internet, but they are the space in which human interactions can be exhibited and in turn traced. And it doesn’t not take merely one of Maslows pyramids to represent society, but rather a myriad of interacting pyramids to reflect human motives, behaviors and interdependencies, for even the Pharos knew that one pyramid in Giza was not enough to build one of the wonders of the world, it is when you behold them aligned together (and with the stars) that the picture is complete.
If we take it a step further, online successes stories in the digital world (relative to their field), such as famous gossip blogger Elaine L. know as Lainey Gossip or fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson who have generated millions of hits, creating vast numbers of online followers, making them “influencers” and hence landing them a spot in the broadcast and print industries through their own shows or books, we are arguably looking at the modern day manifestations of what Maslow referred to as “self actualization” needs, the golden tip at the top of the pyramid.
Yes many might disagree with Mazlow and view that satisfying one need is not necessarily a prerequisite to moving up the pyramid, for in many instances a highly accomplished individual could lead a life where his/her safety is constantly jeopardized for any of multiple reasons.
The intriguing thought however, is the question of whether what Maslow had once defined as “basic needs” have changed over the years as we become more and more digitally connected. It is worth examining if our digital connectedness, a fact of life that is essential in many areas of life especially in developed countries (but arguably even in developing working with examples of the mobile worker as defined by Manuel Castells come to mind). The issue that arises is whether our connectedness as a need move down to the bottom of the triangle towards the more basic of needs as we become more dependant on it.
And the question that lingers is whether we are dependant on our connectedness because of internal driving factors, which have stemmed from our physiological independence or is it because society, governmental organizations and the private sector give us to choice but to live our lives dependant on it. This arguably also applies to safety needs as Maslow terms the level and paves the way to the question: Does Internet safety/ privacy fall under the same need as physical safety?
Just before the human rights activists of the world examining poverty and violations in extreme conditions come to hunt me down, I am not unaware that this may seem irrelevant to many, in fact to large majority of the world’s masses. But with internet users comprising almost 2.5 billion of the world’s population and the internet meshing into what I would argue constitutes who we are, what we do and how we do it, although it is true that we will not starve to death of we are disconnected, but technology does ultimately feed into systems enabling us to work, earn a living, and withdraw that very same living from automated machines across various locations, in turn putting food on the table.
The table that we sit on in the safety of our homes, hoping that no serial killer will stab us to death that night after dinner but equally hoping that we are not victims of identity theft (as humorously portrayed in the comedy movie Identity Thief starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy) in which case our life as we know it, along with who we are and what we own will all cease to exist.