ZU Magazine is a publication of ZU Media. Below is an article from Issue 4, “Character.”

Staff Writer | Jonah Minnihan

Just over 800 million people have gone through the process of creating their own Instagram account since it’s introduction in 2010. That’s 800 million accounts with at least semi-unique photos and captions. If you’re like us, you may have wondered how and why those people choose to post the photos they do.

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” a psychological theory proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, lists five needs that humans are motivated to fulfill. They are the following: biological and physical needs, safety needs, love and belongingness needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs. The final one, self-actualization, is the desire for development and creativity within an individual.

The theory is often depicted as a pyramid,  detailing in which order they must be fulfilled. Maslow writes that once the basic needs of physiological and physical safety are met, a person is able to move on to more complex needs like finding belonging and self-actualization.

When someone creates an Instagram account, there are decisions that they make. They choose who to follow, what pictures to like and, most importantly, what pictures to post. A person’s profile is how they have decided to present themselves to their followers. For many, this presentation is a tactic for gaining more followers, a tactic that leads to a sense of belonging and ultimately, positive self-esteem.

Alex Bauer, a self-proclaimed social media wizard who boasts an impressive 104 thousand followers, critically thinks about every picture he posts.

“Don’t post five “decent” photos a day … instead post one photo or video that is interesting, good quality and creates conversation,” Bauer said. With this advice, Bauer is fulfilling Abraham Maslow’s own hypothesis about human needs.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Colin Eggleson, a graduate student pursuing his M.S. in counseling at Wheaton College, explained that Instagram acts as a platform for people to find their independence.

“Most of the people on Instagram are in their middle-teens and they are approaching adulthood. That stage of life is where they are really finding out their identity for the first time. You’re trying to be your own independent person because you are just sort of leaving your family,” he said.

Instagram is a convergence of millions of people seeking to represent themselves and aspects of their lives to their friends and, as with numerous accounts, the public.

Saul McLeod, a psychology tutor at the University of Manchester, said, “When a deficit need has been ‘more or less’ satisfied it will go away, and our activities become habitually directed towards meeting the next set of needs that we have yet to satisfy.”

As McLeod put it, adolescents are searching for reputation and college-aged adults are beginning to look to fulfill dignity.

Professor Brian Collisson, a professor of psychology at Azusa Pacific, said that a person’s level of self-esteem is a sign for how socially connected that person feels. For example, when someone is invited places, she may feel like her social life is active and people like what she is doing, raising her self-esteem. The opposite happens when a person becomes left out of events, rejected, and receives negative reactions to things she is doing.

Although self-esteem can be achieved and lost quickly on Instagram and social media in general, the final need in Maslow’s hierarchy is more difficult to meet.

“Once a person has met his deficiency needs, the focus of his anxiety shifts to self-actualization and he begins—even if only at a subconscious or semi-conscious level—to contemplate the context and meaning of life,” writes Neel Burton in his article, “Our Hierarchy of Needs.”

This subconscious contemplation of life is not something that Instagram has an obvious fix for. “Self-actualization,” the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy, appears to belong to the real, offline world. It is beyond superficial likes.

Human beings, introverts included, gravitate towards others to experience a sense of belonging. For millions, Instagram fills this need for acceptance and belonging. Self-actualization, that need for an understanding of one’s own potential and talents, may just be out of reach of social media.