Who do you think you are? What your social media posts say about you

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Are you someone who posts political opinions and articles on Facebook? Some of you are emphatically scoffing right now—Facebook is not the place for it! Not going to change anyone’s minds! Others of you are boldly declaring, of course you do! I am often in the latter group, sometimes sheepishly so, but not always.

Why do we post such articles on Facebook? Maybe we truly believe that we can reach even one person who didn’t understand why “All Lives Matter” is offensive or who hadn’t considered that Hillary is relatively honest, as politicians go. Certainly, this could be the case. But, as with anything we do, the explanation is probably more complicated than that. It’s also likely that people post political articles and share opinions on hot button topics to portray a certain image of themselves. An image that says, I am not ignorant. I am a liberal/conservative/independent/Christian/atheist/fill-in-the-blank. I care about these issues because I am a compassionate good person.

facebook-gif-2The articles we post are a proxy of who we are, a strategic presentation of self, a way to shape others’ thoughts and assumptions about us.1 How many times have you or someone you know unfriended someone because of something they shared or said on Facebook? These intended perceptions are not necessarily false or distorted. In the examples above, the person posting may legitimately be a liberal compassionate good person. Wanting others to see that and taking care so that they do is not false. Furthermore, strategic self-presentation on Facebook or any social media, for that matter, is not constrained to the political domain, although the election makes this post oh so timely.

What are people trying to convey when they share on social media? Jones and Pittman (1982) offer several strategies people use to manage others’ impressions of them:

  1. Ingratiation: the most common form of self-presentation. We want others to like us, but we can’t be too obvious about it. An ingratiating post has an ulterior motive of wanting those who read it to like you because you posted it, but the post isn’t going to indicate that explicitly. This strategy usually has an intended target audience in mind. Maybe you posted an article about Hillary Clinton because you want your new friends who are Hillary supporters to see it.
  1. Intimidation: this type of self-presentation is the opposite of #1. The person posting is uninterested in being liked. They want to convey power and potential to be dangerous (think Men’s Rights Activists who harass women on the internet). This type of post is most problematic for people who are stuck with the person who posted it, like a family member. Others can simply (usually) ignore the jerk.
  1. Self-promotion: We all know this type of post. It’s self-focused, whether explicitly or not. The goal is usually to elicit feelings of competence or attractiveness. An additional component is that the information in such a post can’t contradict anything else known about the person, or else perceived competence is diminished.
  1. Exemplification: Similar to self-promotion, exemplification posts aim for the audience to perceive the poster as moral and of high integrity. Note that this is not mutually exclusive from #3. Who doesn’t want to be seen as moral and likable? Of course, this post backfires if not seen as sincere or authentic.

Again, these strategies don’t necessarily exist independently of each other (see #3 and #4). And exceptions exist, as is the case with extreme emotion, like anger or joy, which can propel people to share updates or articles on Facebook without an underlying self-presentation strategy. Much of the time, however, posts can be categorized into one of the above 4 strategies.

 

Happy Facebooking!

 


1  Jones & Pittman. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. Psychological perspectives on the self, 231-262.

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