Facebook: It’s All Done With Mirrors

Facebook now invites us, one and all,
To read the writing, there upon the wall;
To place your private self in public view
And see what other people think of you.
The internet, ten years ago, was only
Thought a place to be depressed and lonely,
Hidden from the friends you had outside,
The net was just a place where people hide.

This wasn’t just a random guess, in fairness;
It came from the Objective Self-Awareness
, which proposes that we view
Ourselves the way objective others do
As well as as a subject, from within.
When self is viewed as object, we begin
To see we fall far short of our ideal,
With negative effects on how we feel.

A second theory notes that we select
The details which we share, and which reject;
Selective self-presentation says, we choose
Among the information that we use;
Our public face is thereby polished bright
And we look good, in our and others’ sight.
This mirror, mirror, on our facebook wall
May show us as the fairest of them all

These two competing views were put to test,
To see which one described the outcome best;
Participants would view their profile pages,
Then take a test of self-esteem, which gauges
How they view themselves. These were compared
To two control conditions—one which shared
The room with a mirror (a prompt for OSA),
And one with all such objects tucked away.

The winner is… it seems the Facebook screen
Allows us to select, to frame, to preen,
To paint a perfect portrait we can share
And tell ourselves it’s our reflection there.
A gilded mask can take our place instead
And we, as well as others, are misled—
But does the positive effect apply
When facebook friends can catch us in a lie?

Ok… First off, Cuttlecap tip to Scicurious (click for a prose explanation of the study), and apologies to any lovers of poetry and/or verse. It’s all Sci’s fault. She tweeted about the study, I asked if she could send me a copy, and she suggested I versify it. So I did, but I don’t know when I’ve ever seen such a nasty bit of forced rhyme and meter. But there it is.

So, the study. As Sci notes, it’s a test of a very specific environment–Facebook. OSA (objective self-awareness–as the verse clumsily says) predicts that stimuli which prompt us to view ourselves as others do, will as a rule force us to see our real selves rather than our ideal, and depress us with the comparison. (Yes, that’s an oversimplification–for the real deal, Duvall & Wicklund wrote the book. Literally. In 1972). Thus, looking at our Facebook profiles ought to be sobering and sad. Or maybe not. Selective Self-Presentation notes that we get to pick and choose amongst the things we post, and that we are more likely to post a flattering pic than an unflattering, for example. (Again, an oversimplification.) We can edit, and polish up our image. It’s a facebook profile, not a lie detector test. Exposure to this polished image, then, would not depress us, but may in fact have a positive effect on self-esteem.

Which is what they found. (again, see Sci’s post for details, if you wish.)

But. Let’s contrast this with another recent paper, Back et al., 2010 (pdf), “Facebook Profiles Reflect Actual Personality, Not Self-Idealization”. First off, the questions being explored are entirely different, and the methodologies likewise are different, so there is no direct comparison. Don’t worry about that. But they do contrast two competing hypotheses, one of which is (to my eye) within spitting distance of Selective Self-Presentation. That hypothesis is the idealized virtual-identity hypothesis, which is pretty self-explanatory, suggesting that profiles display not the real, but an idealized self. This is contrasted with Facebook as simply an extension of the rest of the social world, and just another place to do one’s best to accurately present oneself.

Which is what they found. As the title might have hinted.

Two reasons for this, they suggest, are 1) some of the content is not yours to control; other people can post on your wall. 2) people you know (either in real life or online) provide feedback. If you claim to be tall and thin (or the equivalent behavioral trait), and you are neither, you can only keep this up if no one knows the real you. And it turns out (again, thanks Sci, for this paper as well) that Facebook (and MySpace, for that matter) are mostly used as an extension of face-to-face interaction. (Kujath, 2011)

So, my question: is there a differential effect of self-esteem enhancement, dependent on the extent to which Facebook is used as extension of face-to-face interaction? If you decide to study this, I want second authorship.

Lastly… I don’t do Facebook. Well, I have what they used to call a fan page (which has a link over there to the right, and which you should all “like”, for reasons which escape me), but other than a shell that allows me to post stuff there, I have no facebook presence. Especially as the non-cuttlefish me. I can’t imagine why I would want to, despite pleas from the occasional person (a cousin or two, e.g.). So, feel free to try to convince me to join, or reaffirm my non-joinage.


  1. says

    Cross posted from mine: LOL. I’m glad you covered the study with the opposite effects!!!Oh oh, here’s mine:Mirror, mirror on my Facebook Wall,Do you cause Objective Self Assesment after all?When I look at my profile, must I only seeThings that remind me how much more I should be?But no! My profile won’t make me feel like a loserA sad little poser or hairy ol’ boozerWhen I look at my Facebook, I’m happy to seeAll the best pictures every taken of me!My wall shows me pretty, with BeJeweled scores best,nice comments from hundreds of friends I have blessedwith my presence. And lo, with all of this virtual creamIt’s no wonder Facebook has raised my self-esteem!So when you are low, worry not how you lookTake some cute little picturesAnd set up a Facebook!

  2. says

    Honestly, facebook is something of an acquired taste.Personally, I have a lot of in-laws and the connections are tenuous at best. Combine that with a best friend who escaped to Oregon and you get a facebook enabled society. I haven't physically spoken to my best friend in years. Yet, we keep in nearly constant touch.I'd also like to add that I'm a true geek and that communication, for me, is pretty much limited to conveying a specific set of information and then I'm done. Conversation? Well, I'm still working on that. Facebook is ideal for this kind of communication. Finally, many groups that 'interact' with have pages where announcements are made, events scheduled, etc. Instead of mass e-mails, they just use facebook.You can take it as you will, but I like it. I am not totally addicted, I do not use it at work.

  3. says

    Is it just me? Does everyone else spend loads of time (as a proportion of however much they are on f'book) on their own profile page, or indeed on any other individual's?For me the vast majority of the time I spend is on the wall, which is a vast long mixture of many voices with no coherent presentation from anyone. I'm sure it's the same for most f'cookies. In that light, how relevant are these studies at all?

  4. says

    It's not just you. I barely look at my profile page. In fact, I mainly do Facebook on my phone, which is all wall. I do wonder though: if you were tweaking your profile to look good to you, (a) would your friends really say "No, you're fat!" all the time? and (b) couldn't you just shut those of them that did out?

  5. says

    I only started a facebook account due to a prof's suggestion. She said it might be a good idea for networking and to promote my blogging. It's been an ok experience, but I don't spend much time on it.I'm not sure how I feel about the self-esteem issue when it comes to facebook. However, I'm not one to go around posting pics (flattering or otherwise) of myself all over the internet.

  6. Svlad Cjelli says

    I use it for news feeds on occasion. Rarely to contact anyone or spread a link. But I like having multiple backup communication services.

  7. says

    Facebook helped me in a lot of things. I love how such social media engine had reached out to those who are new and beginners alike to the age of the geeky world out there.

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