Facebook Profiles Don't Stretch the Truth

FRIDAY Feb. 19, 2010 -- Countering the notion that Internet users favor idealized virtual identities, a new study shows that people who join social networking sites such as Facebook create profiles that stick closely to the truth.

Members of such online networks may be more interested in fostering real communication and connections than peddling phony personalities, the researchers say.

"I was surprised by the findings, because the widely held assumption is that people are using their profiles to promote an enhanced impression of themselves," study co-author Sam Gosling, a personality and social psychologist in the department of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, said in a statement. "But these findings suggest that online social networks are not so much about providing a positive spin for the profile owners, but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions."

The study is published in the Feb. 17 online edition of Psychological Science.

According to the researchers, more than 700 million people have already posted profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Facebook alone lays claim to 400 million-plus active users, 70 percent of whom reside outside the United States. Collectively, these users share more than 5 billion pieces of content each week, and publish more than 3 billion photos each month, the site notes.

To gauge to what degree all this information accurately reflects the true personalities of those posting their profiles, the researchers saved and analyzed the profiles of 133 American members of Facebook and 103 German members of that country's popular "studiVZ" social network.

Undergraduate research assistants in both countries -- none of whom knew the social network members -- were recruited to review all the profiles for an unrestricted amount of time, and then rate their impressions.

In turn, the users themselves -- all between the ages of 17 and 22 -- underwent multiple personality tests. In addition, four "well-acquainted friends" of each of the American Facebook users were also asked to describe their friend's true personality.

Gathering all this information, the researchers then generated their own accurate and idealized personality profiles for each user, which they then stacked up against each member's online profile.

Bottom-line: Gosling and his colleagues found no evidence that the people were using their social network profiles to promote idealized personalities. In fact, the research suggests that the apparent accuracy of member postings could explain why the sites have exploded in popularity.

"I think that being able to express personality accurately contributes to the popularity of online social networks in two ways," Gosling said. "First, it allows profile owners to let others know who they are and, in doing so, satisfies a basic need to be known by others. Second, it means that profile viewers feel they can trust the information they glean from online social network profiles, building their confidence in the system as a whole."

"It's possible, of course, that people are actually trying to spin a positive view of themselves but simply not succeeding. But frankly, I don't think there's a lot of people who try that," Gosling added. "Because if I'm an introvert who wants people to think I'm a sensation seeker who swims with sharks, it's not a simple matter. And people understand that. I mean, I would have to go and get a pic of me swimming with sharks. And even if I did, my friends who know me would know I never swim with sharks, so who am I fooling? And that's, in fact, one of the great things about Facebook. There's accountability with our friends."

Laura Freberg, a professor of psychology at California State Polytechnic University -- who herself has investigated the psychological forces driving Facebook -- expressed little surprise with the findings.

"I think that the early studies in the 90s regarding computer use altogether fostered this image of the disturbed, isolated person who was pursuing an alter-ego online," she observed. "But I think if that picture ever did exist it's very different in the social networking that we see today."

"Particularly in terms of the Facebook type of social media, the fact is that this is not an anonymous setting," Freberg noted. "You have your picture up there, and generally speaking people use a lot of personal identification information. And the purpose is to complete and continue connections with people they actually know in person. There's much of less of a tendency to use Facebook to go out there and meet strangers. Members are looking at their high school friends, and they're keeping in touch with family and people going to different universities. It's a way of maintaining contact with people you actually physically know, as opposed to hunting out new relationships."

"This is true, by the way, not just for college students, who were the first group that utilized Facebook," Freberg added, "but also for the fastest-growing segment on Facebook today: boomers. People over 55. They're also accurately representing themselves, because they're also looking for a way to maintain social connectivity. So I do think this study is accurate in its assessment that people are being fairly authentic online."

More information

Here's more on social networking.

Posted: February 2010


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