Perhaps it happened when a clear distinction formed between a “Facebook friend” and the real thing, or maybe it was when Facebook-creeping became more of a social norm than an anomalous behavior. At some point, it became apparent that this social networking site had “revolutionized” our social interactions and concept of self-presentation. Moving past the sweeping, sensationalist generalizations, however, Facebook can provide fascinating insights into human behavior – though sometimes, empirical findings divulge more about our social tendencies than we would care to admit. For instance, have you ever wondered what your Facebook profile reveals about your personal attractiveness and popularity? Findings from a study conducted at Michigan State University on the relationship between interpersonal impressions and number of friends suggest that although there seems to be no specified upper limit to the size of one’s real-life social network, observers react negatively to a perceived overabundance of Facebook friends.3 Interestingly, while we attribute increasingly higher ratings of positive attributes – such as likeability, kindness, and trustworthiness – to individuals with larger numbers of friends in the offline realm, an excess of Facebook connections signals gratuitous “friending” practices to observers, bringing into question the perceived popularity and attractiveness of users with abnormally high friend counts.3 Aptly termed “sociometric overload,” this phenomenon has only been uniquely observed in the context of online social networking and does not apply to offline encounters, suggesting that given the same basic social information about a particular person, we form online interpersonal impressions quite differently from our perceptions based on real life.
The online behaviors that Facebook users regularly engage in – such as posting on others’ walls and initiating friendship requests – can offer expanded perspectives on the process of impression formation and the role that perceived desirability plays in our social interactions. Starting off with analyses of wall-to-wall conversations, research has shown interesting, gender-typed trends for observers’ impressions of a profile owner, based on the social cues posted by his or her Facebook friends. Within the scope of friends who left wall posts on one’s profile, it was found that the more physically attractive one’s Facebook friends were (based on their profile pictures), the greater the degree of attractiveness that observers attributed to the profile owner.5 In essence, the type of company we keep is correlated with our own perceived desirability, as our friends’ attractiveness influences our own in an assimilative pattern. The content of one’s wall posts also interacted with one’s gender; while unfavorable statements about certain moral behaviors bolstered the perceived physical attractiveness of male profile owners, wall posts with a similar negative valence caused females to be evaluated as less attractive.5 In spite of this double standard, however, both male and female observers were equally guilty of making superficial judgements based on visual cues.
For both genders, the basic nature of Facebook allows the selective tailoring of one’s profile and photos to create positive self-presentations for potential social relationships. While this technique is viable only within the context of online social networking, the emphasis that Facebook users place on impression management and the projection of personal attractiveness highlights parallel human tendencies in face-to-face social interactions. Accordingly, a study of college undergraduates examined the relationships among the physical attractiveness of the profile owner, the profile owner’s gender, and the observer’s gender in the context of his or her willingness to initiate a Facebook friendship with the profile owner6 Profile pictures were used as the basis for establishing the attractive unattractive or no-photo conditions. Not surprisingly, results indicated that both genders were most willing to initiate friendships with opposite-sex profile owners with attractive photos.
However, subjects also demonstrated a comparatively higher tendency to befriend profile owners without a profile picture than those who sported an unattractive photo.6 Has this signaled our society’s degeneration into superficiality and dismissive judgements? On the contrary, humans have always relied on physical attractiveness as a primary factor in determining attitude during the acquaintance stage, especially in the absence of quality social interactions to draw from in new relationships. In addition, various studies over time have repeatedly demonstrated that physically attractive individuals have reaped superior social rewards and been perceived as possessing more positive characteristics long before the advent of social networking websites.6 Facebook simply introduces the aspects of online impression management and self-presentation into our long-standing bioevolutionary tendencies.
On a more personal level, an individual’s relationship with Facebook provides even more insight into personality traits and social functioning. A study conducted at the University of Chicago explored the social enhancement and social compensation hypotheses regarding personal motives for using Facebook. Findings supported both hypotheses, showing that both extroverted members with higher offline popularity and self-esteem as well as more introverted members with lower offline popularity and self-esteem used Facebook to try to appear popular.7 However, high self-esteem users were likelier to utilize Facebook in order to protect or maintain their self-image, while low self-esteem users aimed to fix deficiencies in their self-image and reveal information that they did not feel comfortable sharing with real-life acquaintances.7 In terms of social interaction, among the separate demographic of non-Facebook users, attitudes toward social grooming (behaviors that encompass gossip, small talk, and non-functional people-curiosity) are much more incredulous, even hostile.4 Even so, although non-users keep in touch with fewer people without the means of online social networking, they do not actually report a smaller number of close friends compared with Facebook users.4 These findings, compared with the less tangible, ill-defined nature of “Facebook popularity,” suggest that the countless hours we spend on this site are by no means proportionate to the quality or number of the close relationships we maintain in our lives.2-4
However, it is still important to remember that Facebook can indeed be used to accumulate social capital without trivializing peer-to-peer interactions. In fact, this site has the full capacity to support long-distance social interactions without necessarily supplanting the dynamics of offline relationships.1 Additionally, Facebook usage has been shown to interact with measures of psychological well-being, potentially providing benefits especially for users experiencing lower self-esteem.1 At the end of the day, then, we can still take comfort in the prospect that not all of our Facebook creeping has gone to waste.
- Ellison, N.B.; Steinfield, C.; Lampe, C. The benefits of Facebook “Friends”: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites. J. Comput. Mediat. Commun. 2007, 12, 1143-1168.
- Lampe, C.: Ellison, N.; Steinfield, C. A Face(book) in the Crowd: Social Searching vs. Social Browsing. Comput. Support. Cooperat. Work. 2006, 167-170.
- Tong, S. T.; Van Der Heide, B.; Langwell, L.; Walther, J. B. Too Much of a Good Thing? The Relationship between Number of Friends and Interpersonal Impressions on Facebook. J. Comput. Mediat. Commun. 2008, 13, 531-549.
- Tufekci, Z. Grooming, Gossip, Facebook and MySpace: What Can We Learn about These Sites from Those Who Won’t Assimilate? Inform. Commun. Society. 2008, 11, 544-564.
- Walther, J. B.; Van Der Heide, B.; Kim, S.-Y.; Westerman, D. Tong, S. T. The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep? Human Commun. Res. 2008, 34, 28-49.
- Wang, S. S.; Moon, S.-I.; Kwon, K. H.; Evans, C. A; Stefanone, M. A. Face Off: Implications of Visual Cues on Initiating Friendship on Facebook. Comput. Human Behav. 2010, 26, 226-234.
- Zywica, J.; Danowski, J. The Faces of Facebookers: Investigating Social Enhancement and Social Compensation Hypotheses; Predicting Facebook and Offline Popularity from Sociability and Self-esttem, and Mapping the Meanings of Popularity with Semantic Networks. J. Comput Medat. Commun. 2008, 14, 1-34.