What make users spend so much time on social sites? What do we get in return and why are we so much more open online? I am probably not the only one asking these questions. My observation is that 3 elements motivate us:
Curiosity. Have you ever spent time exploring profiles of strangers? It is somehow a core instinct - we just cannot help looking through the profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. Which must be the answer to why (mainly women) buy gossip magazines.
Profiling is the answer to why we don't mind sharing pictures and thoughts that we probably would not share with strangers in offline life. Suddenly we are able to show a side of our self, and in that way promote our personality across circles.
Recognition. Some believe we are driven by money, power and/or recognition. Recognition is exactly what we get when we suddenly have +200 friends or followers. Being followed or invited gives us status in the community. By the end of the day we just want to fit in, having a purpose in life and get recognized for our contribution. We are suddenly able to benchmark our popularity among friends, colleagues and people we dig.
So how can your start-up benefit from this?
Exposing your users with pictures, tags, short descriptions gives fellow users a teaser for reading more - driven by curiosity.
With an ocean of spectators we have the opportunity to stand out, revealing our self in new ways. So give your users the ability to profile them self as individuals, thinkers, believers and helpers to the community.
Most of us (if not all) needs recognition and that is why this element is so vital, encouraging us to spent hours participating on the community, sharing information and networking. So make sure your users contribution gets recognized by the community.
Obviously these elements cannot stand alone, you still need a dynamic and brilliant service, but if you do not support natural behavior, you might become a bit lonely on your community. I pay attention to these factors on Mentory and our other services, trying to hit that perfect balance.
I believe this is also the fault of many Inter/Intranets. Organizations are puzzled why their employees or customers are not generating content, knowledge sharing and participating. Try to ask - what is in it for them?