The COVID-19 pandemic brought significant changes to our daily lives – both offline and online. As lockdowns and social distancing measures forced people around the world to hunker down in their homes, the use of social media skyrocketed, with individuals turning to these platforms to stay connected with others and for general entertainment. According to Statista, just between 2019 and 2020, worldwide number of social media users increased by 11% from 3.51 billion to 3.9 billion people.
However, while the amount of time users spent online increased, there was simultaneously a rise in reported social shaming of what would have previously been deemed as socially acceptable behaviour. So, this combination of factors led to questions about how and what kind of information are users sharing and how the behaviour has shifted.
The observed changes in social media sharing behaviour
Self-disclosure or the act of revealing personal information to others, has always been a fundamental aspect of social media use. It helps individuals build relationships, express their feelings and seek support from others. However, the pandemic has changed the nature of this self-disclosure, with individuals sharing more personal and emotional content than ever before.
An international research team led by Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business found two compelling trends related to this change:
- Social factors outweighed privacy to become the primary drivers of online disclosure behaviour
It was observed that during the pandemic-afflicted holidays, the privacy calculus – which includes factors like self-presentation, self-enhancement, platform trust, community trust and privacy concern – was no longer a significant calculus for driving online disclosure behaviour. Social factors such as utilitarian value, fear and social capital more significantly influenced the information users shared.
- Pre-pandemic private topics became publically acceptable to share and vice versa
The pandemic may have made individuals more aware of what they disclose on social media, particular as it pertains to their personal health, how their behaviour impacts others and how their view about health and protective behaviours are perceived by others. Therefore, topics that were deemed desirable to be shared on social media before the pandemic gradually became frowned upon, while some information that people previously did not disclose became something that was encouraged to be shared.
What this means for businesses and policy makers?
Behavioural changes caused by world events like the COVID-19 pandemic can cause major shocks and fluctuations in social media behaviour which present risks but also opportunities for business managers.
- Social media apps tracking location data need to evaluate what information they readily share with authorities as users are more aware and concerned with data privacy and protection
During the pandemic, specifically with the introduction of contract tracing, people became more sceptical about what and how much they shared online. To keep the trust of users and to continue to attract more user generated content – social media apps need to prioritise user privacy protection and should be encouraged to openly disclose what information they share with authorities.
Very recently, BBC encouraged all their employees to delete TikTok from company mobile phones after the UK government banned the app on government devices over fears of data privacy. Such changes in policy can greatly impact app usage and reputation.
- Businesses need to evaluate the reliability of social media data as it is susceptible to shocks and fluctuations due to changes in user behaviour
In the post-pandemic era, the study suggests that business managers and marketers need to observe whether users have resumed ‘normal’ posting behaviour. These observations are important to consider when revaluating and formulating new marketing strategies based on social media data analysis. In the same vein, another long-term consideration suggested by the research is to assess and account for these data fluctuations when training algorithms and automating processes.
The work-life status-quo that advertisers could count on, completely changed when the pandemic hit. And now as the world reopens, this change has triggered a fundamental shift in how people spend time online. Brands need to listen to what consumers are talking about as they try to reconnect – one example is Guinness’ Welcome Back campaign that immediately connected with consumers and their new mind set.
Overall the pandemic has brought about a significant shift in the way people behave and self-disclose online. Many of these changes are here to stay or have permanently altered behaviour which means that managers need to be encouraged to consider the big picture. While individuals are sharing more personal and emotional content than ever before, they are also becoming more cautious about what they post online and their data privacy. As we continue to navigate the post-0pandemic world, it will be interesting to see how social media use and self-disclosure continue to evolve.
The writer is Professor Christy Cheung from Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business.
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