Is Anybody Listening? Facebook Users Underestimate Personal Reach, Study Finds

Facebook Admit it: every time you post something on Facebook, you hope it will get “likes” or comments from your friends. In a previous blog I wrote about a study that found using online social networks can have a positive effect on self-esteem and well-being, especially for those who have high levels of attention (likes and comments) on posts deemed ‘life events’ by the social platform.

Have you ever felt disappointed by the lack of attention from your friends on Facebook? When you post something and it gets no attention from friends in the form of likes or comments, does it make you think nobody saw it? The average Facebook user has very little information about who actually sees their content, and a new study from researchers at Stanford University addresses the seemingly invisible audience when there is low reaction to a post. The study was conducted in tandem with Facebook’s data science team, which looked at 220,000 users over the course of a month. They discovered that Facebook users drastically underestimate the size of their general audience by a factor of three, with “Facebook users reaching 35% of their friends with each post and 61% of their friends over the course of a month.” Researchers found that social media users consistently underestimate their audience size for their posts, guessing that their audience is just 27% of its true size.

“Understanding this invisible audience can impact both science and design, since perceived audiences influence content production and self-presentation online,” writes Dr. Michael Bernstein, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Stanford and primary investigator in the study. “In this paper, we combine survey and large-scale log data to examine how well users’ perceptions of their audience match their actual audience on Facebook. We find that social media users consistently underestimate their audience size for their posts.”

The researchers analyzed audience logs for 222,000 Facebook users’ posts over the course of one month and find that publicly visible signals — friend count, likes, and comments — vary widely and do not strongly indicate the audience of a single post. Despite the variation, users typically reach 61% of their friends each month.
“Together, our results begin to reveal the invisible undercurrents of audience attention and behavior in online social networks,” Bernstein said.

Why do people underestimate their audience size on social media platforms? One possible explanation, Bernstein says, is that, in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, users may lower their estimates for posts that receive few likes or comments. “A necessary consequence of users underestimating their audience is that they must be overestimating the probability that each audience member will choose to like or comment on the post,” he writes.

For these posts without feedback, it might be more comfortable to believe that nobody saw it than to believe that many people saw it but nobody liked it.