An article posted yesterday to Wired Science describes research by a team of German psychologists that strongly suggests that Facebook users provide accurate representations of themselves on their corners of the social networking giant.
“Online social networks are so popular and so likely to reveal people’s actual personalities because they allow for social interactions that feel real in many ways,” [team leader Mitja] Back says.
Back’s team administered personality inventories that evaluated 133 U.S. Facebook users and 103 Germans who used a comparable social-networking site. Inventories focused on the extent to which volunteers endorsed ratings of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional instability and openness to new experiences.
The subjects — who ranged in age from 17 to 22 — took the inventory twice, first with instructions to describe their actual personalities and then to portray idealized versions of themselves.
Then, undergraduate research assistants — nine in the United States and 10 in Germany — rated volunteers’ personalities after looking at their online profiles. Those ratings matched volunteers’ actual personality descriptions better than their idealized ones, especially for extraversion and openness.
Facebook is so true to life, Back claims, that encountering a person there for the first time generally results in a more accurate personality appraisal than meeting face to face, going by the results of previous studies.
While this may all come as a surprise to people who liken Facebook to a dating-style site, it doesn’t surprise me at all, and Back et al. did not address what I believe is the reason: The majority of Facebook members use the site as a means of keeping in touch with people they already know, not meeting new ones. Since there’s little point in lying to people who already know better, there’s little incentive to embellish or exaggerate.
I don’t technically conform to the study’s findings myself. Anyone who’s a Facebook friend of mine is regularly subjected to a profile typically laden with “status updates” that are outright bullshit, and my personal information page is littered with arrant nonsense. But in treating Facebook like a cesspool of self-indulgent wackiness (hey, when in Rome…), it’s clear that I’m not actually trying to fool people, and anyone who thinks I’m being serious there with this stuff should consult a neurologist. I do keep visitors on their toes by posting something disarmingly sincere and even grave from time to time, but again, it’s not hard to separate these tidbits from the much greater volume of deliberate buncombe.