Social media has gained an unprecedented reputation in the recent decade by having billions of active user’s worldwide (Logan et al., 2018). As a result, people are interacting with each other in a very distinctive and versatile manner that was not perceived by the early sociologists. Therefore, an attempt has been made to apply exchange, network, and rational choice theories to online interactions to assess the relative degree of their effectiveness in explaining the psychological and behavioral responses of the online community.
Application of Exchange, Network, and Rational Choice Theory
The social exchange theory was proposed by George Homans (1910 – 1989). It primarily deals with the psychological principles that determine our social behavior resulting from an exchange process. The theory proposes that people act in a specific way that ensures the maximum rewards and minimum costs during this exchange process. Therefore, social media platforms are an ideal place for individuals to develop social networks at a very lower cost in comparison to offline relations (Surma, 2016). However, the nature of social interactions on an online platform is significantly different from offline interactions as online users mostly interact with each other through written and graphical means. Therefore, it is important to assess whether or not online interactions possess the same characteristics and motives as proposed by the social exchange theory. In this regard, Surma (2016), in his empirical study investigating the reciprocity phenomenon on Facebook, argued that social exchange theory is equally applicable to online social interactions as users tend to behave in a similar way to maximize the perceived profit from their activities and minimize the cost of communication.
Network theory further tries to explain the formulation of online networks and their implications for determining the social behavior of individuals connected with others. According to this theory, the social exchange process is guided by nodes and ties. Nodes are individuals, and ties represent their relationships (Rahman et al., 2020). Thus, when people interact with each other, they form a network that determines their behavior toward each other. The application of network theory in online interactions is evident from the research study of Rahman et al. (2020), in which they recommended business managers build strong ties with the online community to enhance the productivity of the organization.
However, different factors defining the strength of the social ties in social exchange theory are not sufficient to thoroughly describe the forms and intensity of online interactions. For example, as noted by Liu et al. (2017), “some of the traditional social network measures of opinion leadership discussed above may not be the best indicators of social influence on Twitter.” Thus, more rigorous research is needed to extend the social network theory and explain all dimensions of online interactions on social media.
The theory of rational choice is also built on similar assumptions. This states that individuals make choices based on perceived outcomes and reasons to minimize the risk from their actions. In this regard, social media is generally regarded as a source of versatile information and active engagement with millions of users. The increasing number of social media users and the focus of advertising companies on social platforms is a confirmation of the rational choice of individuals and businesses. However, on one hand, it shows the improving confidence of people regarding online platforms, while on the other hand, it indicates the fatigue of users concerning privacy issues (Logan et al., 2018). Thus, when users perceive the potential risks of using social media, they tend to leave this platform to increase the overall benefits of their social interactions. This completely aligns with the propositions of the rational choice theory.
Social exchange, network, and rational choice theories have their implication in explaining the modern social issue resulting from the online interactions of millions of users through social media platforms. However, these theories can be further improved to include and describe the complex social structures formed this way.
Liu, W., Sidhu, A., Beacom, A. M., & Valente, T. W. (2017). Social Network Theory. The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118783764.wbieme0092
Logan, K., Bright, L. F., & Grau, S. L. (2018). “UNFRIEND ME, PLEASE!”: SOCIAL MEDIA FATIGUE AND THE THEORY OF RATIONAL CHOICE. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 26(4), 357–367. https://doi.org/10.1080/10696679.2018.1488219
Rahman, M., Aydin, E., Haffar, M., & Nwagbara, U. (2020). The role of social media in e-recruitment process: empirical evidence from developing countries in social network theory. Journal of Enterprise Information Management, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print). https://doi.org/10.1108/jeim-12-2019-0382
Surma, J. (2016). Social exchange in online social networks. The reciprocity phenomenon on Facebook. Computer Communications, 73, 342–346. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comcom.2015.06.017