A group of students at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley have turned their attention towards a unique course that blends popular culture with the more time-worn principles of psychology.
The Psychology of Facebook is the brainchild of Professor B J Fogg, a pioneering persuasion psychologist who founded the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford. He says: "When Facebook came along I was one of the developers at the launch and what struck me was how there was this new form of persuasion. This mass interpersonal persuasion." Professor Fogg says the pivotal moment came when he watched an application on the site go from "literally zero to more than a million users in a week".
He recalls that it was to do with music sharing and buying tickets and that that was when he had his "oh my gosh moment". It was quickly followed by a light bulb moment.
It's Thursday afternoon and the sun is splitting the sky above the adobe-coloured Cordura Hall, the venue for Professor Fogg's Psychology of Facebook course. Outside there's a rag tag collection of people dodging the searing heat.
As we wait for the technology to click into place that allows another 700 students to tune in online, Professor Fogg declares that his goal is to help everyone to become a world class expert on the psychology of Facebook. But this is no one trick pony according to the Professor. "What we learn here isn't just relevant to Facebook. The psychology that drives Facebook relates to other online success stories, including those blockbusters yet to be invented." "There is something enduring about what we are studying," he declares, "whereas if you are learning how to programme a Facebook application, that then could change in 30 days from now. In fact it probably will; so that knowledge breaks."
Today the focus is on the use of profile pictures, the photograph on the front page of every Facebook entry.
The other strand to Professor Fogg's persuasion theory has to do with motivation and outcomes, questioning why users post a certain type of picture and why they constantly change them or not.
To illustrate his point he conducts a class experiment asking people to write out how they want to be regarded based purely on their profile mugshot. The findings are revealing: "Fun, outgoing, nature loving."
Professor Fogg says this random sample proves that behind even the innocent act of posting a profile picture, the psychology of persuasion in managing your image or the impression you give off is at play. And he stresses that albeit unconsciously, Facebook's unbridled success lies in getting users to to do the work for them with friends persuading friends to post pictures, comments, or upload applications. "I would say they were lucky and have been responsive to users but I don't think they are persuasion masterminds."
"Facebook right now stands out from the crowd. Can they continue? So far with its fifty million plus users they're doing a pretty good job."
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