The IKEA effect and online community

Is it possible that your online communities (Facebook, Twitter, etc) are more important to you, and that you share more with them than the offline communities you are part of?

Research has shown that we feel more strongly about people online than we do offline. Sometimes, I suppose those feelings are based on very little detailed information. Nevertheless, the (somewhat disputed) assertion that today, two out of every 10 marriages in the US evolve from an online dating site (I’d guess it’s actually higher than that but not recorded because I think many people meet online first, just not on dating sites) means that all of us connect real, tangible feelings to our online communities – whether or not we went there to find attachments of the heart.

Photo: Flickr by lovelypetal under Creative Commons License 2.0

Plenty of people have real emotional connections with those they’ve never physically met. Some feel so connected with their online communities, they feel compelled to share their most heart-wrenching, private thoughts and experiences. When, for example, a mother shares the incredibly difficult experience of losing her spouse with the online world, this is not because she’s defective or lacking in offline relationships. It’s because she feels a real, personal, connection to the people in her online community. She knows them as a group. She gives out loving connection in the form of her painful honesty, and hopes for the same in return. She seeks more than just sympathy. She seeks resonance.

This is not a technological construct. It’s actually human centered computing at it’s most obvious. It’s very, very real.

Arguably, this connection of the mind and heart is more ‘real’ than the connections we have offline. Far more real than the connections with neighbours we say hi to each day, but little else.

More real are these connections, than the ones many say we ‘should’ be having.

But the fact is, we have been disengaged with offline communities for a long time. Neighbourhoods are largely dead. I am interested in doing a research paper on how many times newspapers report quotes from people who live in the vicinity of victims of domestic violence, who use the phrases, “they kept to themselves” or “they were a quiet family.”

Why do we connect with the heart online?

Other research, by Dan Ariely, talks about the IKEA effect. This theory says we attribute a greater sense of emotional attachment to things we build ourselves, and hold onto them even though the product is well, not entirely the best produced item ever. He calls it the IKEA effect. While I totally agree that it makes sense that we would feel greater attachment to things we build ourselves, I’m not convinced it’s that simple. In his study, he built an IKEA toy box for his son. That’s the connection. Our relationships, not things, are the reason we have bigger connections. They ‘why’ you’re building it matters more so than simply building it.

Or is it?

When instant cake mixes were introduced to the market in the 1950’s, they did not do well. Housewives (the market) felt that the mixes didn’t make their efforts easier, but that they undermined their effort and commitment to their families (the people they were making the cakes for). Adjustments were made to the mixes so they required the addition of an egg. And sales increased. That was the thing – make it easier for us, but don’t take away our involvement completely – it’s for our families – after all, that’s our identity.

I still know women who have ridiculous work and family schedules, and insist on cooking personally for bake sales, family events, and so on – even if it means staying up until 3am when a store-bought cake would have been perfectly acceptable.

Your online community

So what does all this mean for your online community? You build it, like an IKEA product. But you’re building it for you. Is it possible that the community you’re creating is a reflection of how much you value yourself? Do you want to just buy in to pre-made communities like Ning groups, or do we value the ones we spend our own time on more, like your personal groups on Twitter and Facebook? And where does your blogging community come in?


  • I disagree, respectfully, of course. The reason we share so much and feel such a stronger connection with our online communities is because they are safer – we can hide behind the persona we have online because we never have to reveal ourselves emotionally: Face-to-Face. There is a lack of energetic connection that means we can dole out our revelations and ‘manage’ our emotional response because we have to ‘think’ about it to write it online. Get in an argument with your partner and all the non-verbal signals and tone’s of voice mean so much more to true growth and connection. Online, we can measure it to impress or connect – but it’s not real, it’s with a screen, not a human. Being.

  • Hi Pete! Thanks so much for your comment. You really strike some great points. There is another piece I have just been reading called The Online Disinhibition Effect (John Suler, PhD) which offers support to your argument. Suler, along with some others, will definitely say that part of the reason people are more open online is because of anonymity, invisibility and dissociative imagination aspects. All in line with your thoughts, and to an extent I think you’re right there… but only to an extent. There’s another layer I believe. I have seen people connect online, including those who end up married, who find the experience very, very real. They know the connection is humanly deep and resonant, not something purely with a screen. These are very energetic connections, not limited by the physical. I do see your point – for some there are toxic components to online interactions which allow them to be rude, hurtful and angry without having to stand up for what they do. It’s an interesting space.

  • What a thought-provoking post. I agree with you that the communities we build have meaning to us. I like the analogy of the cake mix, because it’s so true. I won’t buy “Just add water” pancake mix for the same reason.

    With Weinergate now making headlines, I think Pete’s explanation of a managed persona where no true emotional connection is being made holds true. But, this isn’t everyone connecting online.

    I think there is a third type of connection, and that is those looking to reignite an old flame. These relationships are probably a combination of the two types – real emotion, but with a carefully crafted persona. I’d be curious how many attempts at reuniting with old boyfriends/girlfriends actually end up in marriage, and how many just fizzle out once they meet in person and the fantasy is over.

  • Great points Chris! I’m thinking of a fourth type as well – people who are family members who have chosen not to be in contact for so many years, suddenly find a lazy, easy way of pretending to be close to their relatives through social media. This is challenging to the strong/weak ties theory that underpins so much sociology research. It’s another interesting area.

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