The BBC ran an interesting piece, based on an OFCOM survey, or rather OFCOM’s annual Communications Market Report. It features some rather ‘startling’ findings about us Brits and our use of broadband.
“Britons are more willing to cut back on holidays and meals out than on spending on communication technology during the recession… … spending on mobiles, the internet and TV is regarded as a higher priority than almost anything except food.”
Camille Tweet

Time to revisit Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs

Curious indeed. I shared the link via Twitter and the ever provocative Camille Mendler of the Yankee Group (and I mean that in a good way) tweeted back. It struck a chord with a series of recent discussions, so I’ll share them here.

Let’s leave Maslow, just for a minute, we’ll come back to him. The way we are using the Internet is subtly changing. The study highlights a dramatic rise in the use of social networking websites. 19 milliom people in the UK, that is around 50% of the internet-using population, spend an average of six hours a month on Facebook. That is a 50% increase from four hours a month back in the previous May.

It’s not just a phenomenon among young people. Quite the opposite.The proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds claiming to have a social networking site profile grew to 46%, while the figure among 35 to 54-year-olds rose to 35%. The only group shrinking was the 15- to 24-year0old group, down by 5% to 50% – perhaps they are trying to avoid their parents on Facebook?

This shift in Internet use is relevant to Maslow’s Hierachy of needs. Just in case you missed, Maslow’s article ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ appeared in Psychological Review back in 1943, and was the foundation of his book “Toward a Psychology of Being” (on Amazon US and UK). In it Maslow proposed a five tier model to describe human motivation. It is a theoretical approach, rather than an experimental finding, and Maslow himself revised the model in his later works. That said, it has become the foundation for a sea of thought, from sales theory to engaging employees. The five tiers are:

  • Self-Actualization
  • Esteem
  • Love/Belonging
  • Safety
  • Physiological

Essential, each level of needs has to be fulfilled in order to reach the next. If needs at a lower level are left unmet, we focus back down at that lower level, so the theory goes. Taking the levels in more detail, one by one:

Physiological Needs

We all need to eat, to drink, to breathe and to sleep. Without these, we rapidly fail to function and everything else becomes meaningless.

Safety Needs

We require shelter and protection from physical harm. Exposure to the elements or attack will obviously impact on your physiological needs. Beyond that we seek longer term security, for example paid employment or knowing that we will be provided for. We don’t want just to survive, we want to know that we will survive.

These first two tiers are reasonably well served in western society, although not as universally as one might home. Moving on from the lower levels it starts to get interesting, and somewhat surprisingly, we come back to broadband:

Social Needs

We need a sense of belonging. That might come through friendships, or membership of a group of some description. Something we are part of that is a place for giving and receiving love, in its various forms, is required to meet these social needs. Think: Belonging.

Esteem Needs

We all need to feel wanted and valued, consciously or not. Simple acts, like being recognised and receiving attention from others, protect our self-esteem. A healthy self-respect, a sense of having achieved things, keeps us going. Without these, we are unlikely to feel fulfilled. There are a raft of psychological theories that exist at this level. Simply remember: Attention.


This was the subject of much of Maslow’s later work, but that is something for another time. For now, suffice it to say that at this highest level, people become motivated by more social causes and issues such as justice, truth, wisdom and meaning. Operation at this level is often evidenced by the acceptance of facts and the celebration of capabilities like creativity and problem solving.

As a side note, this model seems to hold true at a corporate level as well as a human one. I believe there are companies that achieve “self-actualisation”. They are rare, but I have had the privilege of experiencing them. I recognise themes from the periods of peak growth at both Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks. There was a sense of meaning that was common across the who;e business, and values like justice and wisdom were held in high regard.

So, back to those British broadband users… Social Networking sites like Facebook, enable us to keep in touch with friends. Remember that requirement to belong? To be needed? Simple acts like commenting on a friends status update, or knowing that others might be waiting for our next status update, tick boxes in the hierarchy of needs. For better or worse, broadband is becoming the pipe that provides social fuel on that journey towards self-actualisation.

I’m not making an argument to justify broadband as some sort of basic right, or even an essential service – that is probably a step too far. I am pointing out that broadband pipes don’t just feed us with information, they provide us with much needed social contact too. The Internet of information has become the Internet of people. In doing that, broadband has moved itself from “nice to have” to “nicer to have.”


While people said that they would cut back on going out for dinner (47%), DIY (that most serious of British addictions – 41%) or holidays (41%), only a tiny minority (10%) would be prepared to cut back on their broadband.  It would be intersting to know about more about the survey, as the identification of the surveyors may have skewed the answers.

Maslow’s hierarchy hasn’t changed, but the role of technology within it has. Businesses need to take note here. People have embraced ‘digital intimacy’ as part of their lives. Companies that don’t provide tools to support social cohesion will eventually suffer. Yes, I guess I would say that, but I’m happy to hear counter arguments.

Throwing your staff out on the road, or sending them off to work at home, without providing on-line social tools, will impact on the effectiveness of your business. Staff turnover will increase, communication will dry up, and the creativity that is so vital to innovation will disappear. Alarmist? I don’t think so. Look at how people are using technology at home. Those expectations are coming into the work place. Look at the importance people place on it. This isn’t a fad, it is a change in what the Internet is all about.