Amsterdam Center for Social Media

This week in social media research: Who are those people not using Facebook?

By Ivar Vermeulen

In an MA class on Digital Marketing a few weeks ago, we were discussing Facebook’s business model. I made the point that Facebook benefits greatly from switching costs. Facebook, aside from being a nice way of keeping in touch with friends, is also a platform where people store their social “collectibles”: important contacts, life-changing posts and chats, and a lot of good memories. When users would decide to leave Facebook and switch to, say, Google+, this would cost them their collection. Hence, due to switching costs Facebook users will stick around, and Facebook will be around for some time to come.

One of the students did not buy the argument at all. He couldn’t imagine anyone actually needing Facebook to the extent that they couldn’t leave anymore. In fact, he wasn’t even thinking of joining Facebook at all. By now the class was dumbstruck. Not on Facebook? Who is this guy?

Still, a lot of people do not use Facebook. About half of my friends don’t. They think Facebook is for narcissists, extraverts, and superficial would-be socialites – people who like to change their profile pictures every week and make clever remarks all day; probably because they’re bored or self-absorbed. Or both. The question is, are non-Facebook users any different?

A paper by Nikolina Ljepava and colleagues in the latest issue of Computers in Human Behavior aims to answer exactly that question: How do non-Facebook users compare to Facebook users? It starts off with a hefty methodological challenge: Finding a representative sample of non-Facebook users in the (sigh…) student population that would serve as a research population. With some effort, the researchers found 36 students with no or an inactive Facebook account and compared them to 71 “normal” students selected from a much larger sample. They speculated that the difference between the groups might become apparent in the extent to which their peers used Facebook, in the intimacy of their friendships, in their need for self-disclosure, in their overt and covert narcissism (the latter being a predictor of non-Facebook use). Results showed that indeed the groups differed on all these characteristics. The typical Facebook non-user could be described as a person who  (in order of importance) (1) has few friends using Facebook, (2) is not overtly narcissistic, but (3) is covertly narcissistic, (4) does not have very intimate friendships, and (5) a low need for self-disclosure. Most of these findings are not very surprising, except for perhaps findings (3) and (4): I wasn’t familiar with the notion of covert narcissists before, but it seems to make sense that such people would not like Facebook; these are people who think they are pretty special, but do not like to shout it off the roofs. Especially when there are a whole lot of other people around who also think they are special and do like to express that thought (the overt narcissists). The other interesting finding is that the typical Facebook non-user does not have very intimate friendships. This goes against the idea of Facebook as a maintenance tool for superficial friendships. Instead, it seems that intimacy urges people to check in with their friends on Facebook.

One more thing about Facebook as a storage facility for our social collectibles: An intriguing recent study by Laura Mickes et al. in Memory & Cognition suggests that we might not really need it. In four experiments, Mickes and colleagues show our memory for Facebook postings is remarkably better than for almost everything else (faces, news headlines, etc.). The authors propose that this might be due to the postings’ casual tone, informational completeness, and social content. These factors would make Facebook postings exceptionally easy to encode and store in our own memories. So my story about switching costs might not hold up after all.


  • Ljepava, N., et al. (2013), Personality and social characteristics of Facebook non-users and frequent users. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1602–07.
  • Mickes, L., et al. (2013), Major Memory for Microblogs. Memory & Cognition, 41(4), 481-89.

Category: Facebook, Personality, Social media, Uncategorized


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