Personalized communication boosts user's well-being

Julia Eve Napolitano Sep 25, 2016

Whether it is birthday cards or smiley faces drawn in the margins of our notebooks, getting personalized messages makes us feel special and brightens up our day. New studies show that getting these messages in digital form is just as powerful as getting them in person. In particular, Facebook offers a prime platform for sending and receiving personalized messages.

However, personalized messages must be more than simply reading or “liking” a post in order to compare to the intensity of the feelings we would get if these messages were received in person. “We’re not talking about anything that’s particularly labor-intensive,” said Moira Burke, a research scientist on the data science team at Facebook, in a university press release. “This can be a comment that’s just a sentence or two. The important thing is that someone such as a close friend takes the time to personalize it. The content may be uplifting, and the mere act of communication reminds recipients of the meaningful relationships in their lives.”One of the most successful activities Facebook has developed in this regard is notifying friends about your birthday on Facebook and allowing them to write on your wall. Comments such as “Happy Birthday!” remind us of our meaningful relationships, and comments that include personalized photo collages make us feel just as good as if we received a card in person.

Burke earned a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon in 2011. Her research interests include bridging computer science and social psychology, specifically large-scale computational analysis of social patterns in online communities. Burke teamed up with Robert Kraut, Burke’s Ph.D advisor and the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Human-Computer Interaction in the School of Computer Science and Tepper School of Business, to investigate how personalized messages impact people’s psychological well-being. Kraut, who began his career as a social psychologist, has a broad research interest in the design and social impact of information technologies in in the home, small groups, and in organizations.

In their most recent study, the pair of researchers examined 60 comments from close friends in a month and found that the positive comments correlated to an increase in the user’s psychological well-being as large as those feelings were associated with major life events such as getting married, having a child, or getting a promotion at work. According to the study’s abstract, “An extensive literature shows that social relationships influence psychological well-being, but the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. We test predictions about online interactions and well-being made by theories of belongingness, relationship maintenance, relational investment, social support, and social comparison.”

The study, entitled “The Relationship Between Facebook Use and Well-Being Depends on Communication Type and Tie Strength Authors” was published by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in late July, and the research was supported by the National Science Foundation and Google. These findings contrast with many previous studies, which used opt-in user surveys to determine that spending more time on social media correlates to depression or loneliness. Kraut said in a university press release, “You’re left to wonder — is it that unhappy people are using social media, or is social media affecting happiness?” As opposed to previous studies, which used user surveys, Burke and Kraut’s study used Facebook logs to examine real activity over a period of months. The 1,910 participants of the study were all volunteers from across 91 countries, and their information was analyzed aggregately as opposed to individually.

Using the logs, which are more accurate than user surveys, Burke and Kraut could differentiate between different types of activity on Facebook, including posts, passive reading, liking, and commenting.
The researchers could also determine whether the activity was associated with a user’s close friend or mere acquaintance. “It turns out that when you talk with a little more depth on Facebook to people you already like, you feel better,” Kraut said. “That also happens when people talk in person.” “This suggests that people who are feeling down may indeed spend more time on social media, but they choose to do so because they’ve learned it makes them feel better,” Burke said. “They’re reminded of the people they care about in their lives.”

The users of the study also took monthly surveys regarding mood and behavior, and by considering these attributes over time, Burke and Kraut were able to determine that personalized Facebook interactions predicted improvements in user psychological well-being, including an increase in satisfaction with life and happiness, as well as a decrease in loneliness and depression.Since the participants of the study were all volunteers, there was no random assignment involved, which, in a typical case, may cause invalidation of the results. In addition, many of the participants were older and had larger networks than typical Facebook users.

However, the study’s examination of social media interactions over time and psychological well-being sets up a research method that is more reliable than one-time user surveys. In the study’s abstract, the researchers say, “Specific uses of the site were associated with improvements in well-being: Receiving targeted, composed communication from strong ties was associated with improvements in well-being while viewing friends’ wide-audience broadcasts and receiving one-click feedback were not. These results suggest that people derive benefits from online communication, as long it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them.”

In the study’s discussion, they say, “Our research derived predictions from five complementary theories about how social interaction on Facebook should affect changes in individuals’ psychological well-being. It provides evidence that the effects depend on the nature of the communication and the relationship between communicators. Receiving more personalized communication—targeted, composed text—from strong ties was linked to improvements in well-being.” In the study’s conclusion, they say, “Specific uses of the site were associated with improvements in well-being: Receiving targeted, composed communication from strong ties was associated with improvements in well-being while viewing friends’ wide-audience broadcasts and receiving one-click feedback were not. These results suggest that people derive benefits from online communication, as long it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them.”

Getting personalized messages makes us feel like someone out there cares, and whether that happens in person or on social media, the effect is the same. So next time you’re scrolling through Facebook, make sure to drop an encouraging comment on your friend’s page. It can go a long way.