What do people want? As it turns out, it depends on how the question is asked. At SXSW this year, NetBase.com presented a social media analysis of expressed desire. Specifically, they analyzed 365 days of 27 million status updates that begin with the words “I want.” Recently, they followed up with a Harris survey in which they asked 2,000 participants (1,000 men and 1,000 women) “What is the one thing you want right now? Be as specific as possible.” Unsurprisingly, the results varied dramatically. First, check out the infographic, then keep reading for my analysis.

Credit: NetBase.com


To summarize, the “I want______” social media analysis finds that people desire immediate gratification. In particular, 80% of the time when people “want” something, it turns out to be food. Looking at the top 10 status update wants, phones and cars are the only inedible desires. In contrast, the survey question elicited responses that were primarily financially based, with 50% of participants expressing a desire for money. Of the top 10 wants, non-monetary items included health, sex, and peace and quiet.

Two interesting and interrelated things are going on here. First, we can juxtapose the kinds of desires that Facebook users share via status updates versus the kinds of desires that participants express in response to the survey question. Second, we can look at the ways in which the architecture of a communication platform shapes how we express and define ourselves.

As seen in the infographic, NetBase.com juxtaposes the ostensibly “logical” responses from the Harris survey to “emotional” responses from Facebook. I think this differentiation is somewhat off. Rather than logic versus emotion, the responses seem to differ on the dimension of temporality. Specifically, Facebook status updates are about what people want right now, while the Harris responses tend towards desires with more long term benefits. Spontaneously, we want to gratify our immediate needs. Long term, we want to be able to gratify whatever need may arise. So even though right now I want a calorie-filled, frozen, whipped-topped coffee drink and a blueberry muffin (seriously, my stomach is grumbling) long term, I want to have the financial resources to purchase these coffee-shop treats without dire consequences for my bank account,  and the bodily health to consume these treats without dire consequences for my well-being.

So what leads us to express these different kinds of desires in different contexts? The most obvious difference between the Harris survey and the social media analysis is the spontaneity of the latter versus the elicitation of the former.

The architecture of a communication medium necessarily shapes how we communicate. When the medium is explicitly identity-based (like social network sites and personal interactive homepages), the medium also shapes who we are. Facebook prompts us with a fill-in-the-blank architecture, and invites us to literally update our statuses. We are prompted to share where we are, what we are doing, and what we are thinking RIGHT NOW. As such, we talk about the here and now, and present ourselves as here-and-now versions. We present ourselves in process. Our desires, in this context, are the kind that can be immediately satisfied, moving us out of the current status, and requiring a new, here and now update.