In today's digital age, online platforms have become an integral part of our daily lives, allowing us to socialize and expand our knowledge. While it may be comfortable to consume information online as anonymous users, the value of participating openly in public spaces may not be immediately evident. As a result, some individuals may be hesitant to engage in public discourse on online platforms.

Before discussing motivation, it is important to explore why we consume different types of media, such as social online platforms, newspapers, and television. The Uses and Gratification Theory  suggests that users seek different forms of gratification from each type of media. At the very least, each medium fulfills a combination of the following needs:

  1. Cognitive needs: Providing new knowledge, information, and facilitating a better understanding of the world.
  2. Affective needs: Offering aesthetic and emotional experiences.
  3. Integrative needs: Enhancing confidence, status, and credibility.
  4. Social needs: Strengthening relationships and fostering social connections.
  5. Relaxing needs: Providing an escape from responsibilities or promoting self-awareness.

These needs are fundamental and recent studies have even shown  a link between these needs and happiness levels. It is worth noting that media types that satisfy the needs 3 to 5 tend to attract more users. Consequently, choosing to stay away from such media types is a personal decision, but it carries the risk of feeling socially left out.

It is important to understand that the Uses and Gratification theory mainly focuses on the self-driven motivations to use a particular media type. However, to understand why individuals choose to engage in tasks such as publicly sharing opinions on online platforms, Atkinson's "Expectancy-Value Theory" of "Achievement Motivation" [Schunk, 2012; ch. 8] can be used to complement the Uses and Gratification theory. This theory suggests that people make judgments and decisions based on their expectations of the outcomes and the subjective value they assign to those outcomes. Expectancy refers to the belief that the task is attainable and will deliver desired outcomes, while value refers to the personal importance attributed to those outcomes. Therefore, online participation can be motivated by raising awareness of the value of the outcomes and addressing self-efficacy concerns (i.e., improving the belief in reaching the desired outcomes).

The growing number of tools and platforms required for online participation can be overwhelming, creating concerns related to technical skills, especially when individuals are in unfamiliar settings. Online platforms are designed to fulfill specific needs, and they have different usage scenarios that can be tailored to individuals. While the learning curves for these platforms may be low, effective usage is achieved through hands-on experience. A common feature of these platforms is their learnability through observation of other users. By observing these capabilities, individuals can easily find technical details needed to achieve their desired outcomes by attending online courses, joining communities, and participating in forums. Practice can be reinforced by creating dummy online profiles or users.

It can be argued that digital literacy and online communication skills are more important concerns than technical skills. Digital literacy refers to the ability to critically evaluate online information, discern credible sources, and recognize and respond to online threats such as misinformation or cyberbullying. This skill is developed by forming circles of trust, where collective knowledge is built through awareness and options to mitigate threats. On the other hand, communication skills involve expressing thoughts clearly, engaging in respectful and constructive discussions, and understanding the nuances of written communication such as tone and intent. These skills are similar to the ones required by scientific communities and are built through practice. It is important to accept that digital presence is virtual and not inherently tied to physical presence. Starting as a novice with dummy profiles/accounts and gradually becoming a proficient user is an effective approach. Therefore, online presence can be built gradually, even though it may seem overwhelming at first.

Online platforms can be designed to cater to different needs, providing gratification to users. Publicly sharing opinions, especially on subjects that require expertise, is primarily motivated by cognitive, integrative, and social needs. By consuming media created by others, we fulfill our cognitive needs by acquiring new knowledge and shaping personal identities. Sharing opinions publicly satisfies integrative and social needs by boosting confidence and credibility. The more people express agreement with ideas, the greater the feeling of gratification. Another benefit is the ability to use online platforms regardless of physical location, allowing for potentially larger-scale validation and recognition. Therefore, the main benefit of online presence lies in its potential scale.

Digital presence refers to using online media to create a digital identity that is not inherently tied to physical presence. Depending on the desired outcome, individuals can choose which side of themselves to expose. This versatility is a healthy behavior as elaborated on by Julian Keuzenkamp, who relates it to Carl Jung's definition of "persona." Jung defines persona as a kind of mask that conceals one's true nature while expressing certain traits in different social environments. Developing personas in physical social environments naturally aligns with the evaluations of social groups and requires persistence. However, digital personas can be chosen more deliberately and allow for switching without long-term consequences. This versatility enables individuals to experiment in safe, virtual environments, promoting personal growth and learning.

One last point that can be added is the role of online platforms in building collective knowledge, specifically through the use of blogs, articles, and other written sources. Nowadays, there is a growing interest in generative tools like chatGPT, which are considered to be general purpose artificial intelligence (AI) tools. To understand how these tools are developed, one can experiment with different prompts. For example, a prompt like "What are the self-efficacy concerns for online participation?" can yield a well-constructed response. However, if we enter a follow up prompt "What are the references for the above text?", we would receive the following explanation:

I apologize for any confusion, but as an AI language model, I don't have direct access to external references. The information I provided is based on the knowledge I acquired through training on a diverse range of data, including articles, blogs, and other textual sources. I generated the response by synthesizing and summarizing the common understanding and concepts related to self-efficacy concerns for online participation.

This response clarifies that the collective knowledge is built through a data-driven model, utilizing shared online content. In addition to the personal arguments I mentioned earlier in favor of publicly sharing knowledge, there is also a civic responsibility aspect. Our ideas and interpretations can have an unprecedented impact, and although concerns about judgment, social comparison, and being perceived as uninformed are valid, we should trust that these issues will be rectified.  The following image, generated by AI,  illustrates that out individual contribution, regardless how small it is, has an impact.

In summary, online participation is motivated by various needs, including cognitive, integrative, and social needs. The Uses and Gratification Theory explains how different media types fulfill these needs, while the Expectancy-Value Theory emphasizes the importance of users' expectations and subjective value of outcomes in motivating online participation. By addressing self-efficacy concerns, developing digital literacy and communication skills, and recognizing the potential benefits of online presence, individuals can engage in public discourse and contribute to collective knowledge in a meaningful way.


D.Sc. Yusein Ali

Aalto University,

Espoo, Finland