The Psychology of Twitter, Facebook, and Other Social Networking Devices

The Real Life Example

The history of social networking is probably quite a bit older than most people realize.  The internet has made it possible for humans to remain connected in ways that probably would have blown your father’s mind when he was a kid.  In fact, when I was young I use to ponder how neat it would be to go to my 10 year high school reunion.  By the time I got to high school however, instant messaging, email, myspace and (by the time i was in college) facebook made the prospects of attending any high school reunion seem unnecessary.  I already know what Tom has been doing for the last five years and I’m in constant contact with the friends I wish to remain in contact with.

In fact, I know more about people I don’t care about than I ever thought I would. Just the other day I announced to the world that I had intended on “unfriending” 75% of the 357 facebook “friends” I have because I didn’t know or care about their lives.  I haven’t gotten around to that, and I’m not sure I will.  Humans value the networks they are a part of.  Those 357 “friends” are sort of a resource, I realized. I may not care about Mary’s colonoscopy that she told the world about last night, but you never know when she’s going to post about a job opening at her company.

I mention a colonoscopy on facebook as a joke, only…it’s not a joke. I’ve seen that come across my “news feed”.  The amount of personal information shared on the likes of twitter, myspace, facebook, message boards, or whatever the social-networking-flavor-of-the-month is, is somewhat mind blowing.  It’s obvious that the information we share on these sites is put out there for a reason. It’s as if we are reaching out to the world, trying to quench that ever-present thirst for attention and sense of importance.

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It seems likely that our desire to scream to the world about our every moment and–if you chose, our colonoscopies–is driven psychologically.  In fact, a new website called TweetPsych allows you to check the psychological breakdown of your tweets. It says of tweeting extraordinaire Shaquille O’Neil that, “Many of your Tweets reference various social behaviors.” As interesting and fun as TweetPsych is, research into the psychology behind social networking is in fact under way.

Who Are They

Researchers Young, Dutta, and Dommety of Stanford University’s Psychology Department

What They Did

Young, Dutta, and Dommety formed a simple research experiment that sought to identify a relationship between the things people put on their facebook profile about themselves in connection to their intentions, specifically whether or not they were using facebook as a tool to find a romantic relationship. The team utilized 150 facebook profiles representing a random mix of individuals.

What They Found

As they predicted, the research found a statically significant pattern between certain information listed on their profile in correlation to their relationship status.  Specifically, they found that individuals who listed their religion on their profile also tended to list the fact that they were single.

What This Means

The researchers recognize the simplicity of their study but also point out that, to their knowledge, this is the first study of its kind (often, entire branches of study stem from small, seemingly insignificant studies such as this). They conclude from this that it is likely that individuals are using social networking sites, like facebook, to paint a picture of themselves to potential partners.

The premise is that if an individual is not seeking a partner, there is no need to share with the world very individual and personal moral views.  Only does this matter if you are quietly informing people who may be interested in you. In a sense, facebook becomes a filter for the individual to weed out incompatible mates.

In Another Study

The truth is that for every 5 friends I have that are on facebook, I can probably think of one who isn’t.  The fact is that not everyone has a desire to share themselves to the world like others might.  Certainly, the internet did not create narcissism, but many would argue that social networking websites aid in it. Furthermore, it seems a safe conclusion that narcissistic individuals are more prone to utilizing social networking tools.  Recent research seems to confirm this conclusion.

Who Are They

Buffardi and Campbell of the University of Georgia’s Department of Psychology

What They Did

Buffardi and Campbell collected self-reports detecting narcissistic tendencies of users of social networking sites. The profiles of these individuals web pages were then coded to detect the levels of subjective and objective content. Lastly, strangers viewed these profile’s and rated them on three areas: agentic traits (the level at which an individual is a product of their society), communal traits, and narcissism.

What They Found

It turns out that an individuals level of activity on their social networking website is strongly correlated to their level of narcissism.  In short, people who like themselves tend to show more to the world about themselves.

Why Is Social Networking So Prevalent?

Narcissism is generally not a celebrated trait. Why then is social networking so widely accepted if it is so related to narcissistic tendencies?  Is it possible that the internet merely allows an all-to-easy outlet for these tendencies to surface from people who may otherwise not possess them? According to one study, this seems to be the case.

Some people are far more shy than others but to a certain extent we all possess a little of this–even the “kings of narcissism”.  Being shy is a defensive measure that allows an individual to protect themselves from ridicule, or worse.  The internet has allowed individuals an uncanny intimacy while maintaining  a near-infinite level of physical separation.  What effect might this have on shy individuals?

Who Are They
Orr, Sisic, Ross, Simmering, Arseneault, and Orr  of The University of Windsor’s Psychology Department

What They Did

Orr, Sisic, Ross, Simmering, Arseneault, and Orr  set out to study correlations of shyness to various aspects of social networking websites.

What They Found

By coding individuals level of shyness based on self reports and then analyzing their usage of facebook, Orr, Sisic, Ross, Simmering, Arseneault, and Orr, discovered that individuals who were more shy spent far more time on facebook.  What they also unexpectedly found, was that despite the fact that shyer individuals spent more time on facebook, they had a significantly lower amount of friends associated with their profiles.

What Does All This Mean?

Although social networking is reaching, arguably, the end of its 3rd generation, psychological research on the matter is still very young. However, recent studies seem to indicate what logic would surmise.  Social networking is, at its heart, fueled by long-existing psychological tendencies. The desire to be loved and be important to the world.  Certainly there is nothing abnormal about this. However, the ease at which information can be placed on the internet, the furious nature with which that information spreads, and the permanence of that information, is cause for concern.

Individuals who have problems finding friends or romantic partners by “normal means” may go to the internet and unleash the narcissism within themselves in an attempt to grab the worlds attention.  Unfortunately, it seems reasonable that shy individuals who can’t meet people by “normal means” (perhaps at a concert, diner, or bar, for example) do not have the filter of shyness that prevents them from sharing more than they may want to with the world.  The results may have the reverse effect that they are seeking.

In any case, it is interesting!

More Reading
Extrapolating psychological insights from Facebook profiles: a study of religion and relationship status (2009)
Narcissism and social networking Web sites (2008)
The influence of shyness on the use of Facebook in an undergraduate sample (2009)
Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited

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  • li

    I had a similar study for my social psychology class. I really like this topic.

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  • Anne

    I find your research fascinating. There is an increasing problem with narcissism and most don’t realize the systemic problems that social networks tend to cater to. If you watch carefully and study profiles you will find that narcissism also tends to promote stalking. I think Fromm said it best when he explained mans need to socialize by: “The masses who did not share the wealth and power of the ruling group had lost the security of their former status and had become a shapeless mass.” His book Escape from Freedom should be required reading in the eight grade.

  • http://www.popular-facebook.com John Cunningham

    That’s an interesting article. It’s a shame they only used 150 profiles in the study. It’s a fascinating study into social networking and ‘shyness’ nonetheless.

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  • http://www.stoltingmediagroup.com/ Stolting Media Group

    Re: “I may not care about Mary’s colonoscopy that she told the world about
    last night, but you never know when she’s going to post about a job
    opening at her company.”

    Tim, that’s one of the saddest most self centered statements we’ve read all year. Let’s hope that Karma does not come back at you or your loved ones in the form of a colonoscopy. People might not care, and only keep you on file in case they need something from you.

  • adele

    I don’t know how the author it meant, but i read it as an (self-) ironical description of how people think and behave. I always find it more respectable to be honest about your motives or perceptions of others’ (not interested in everything strangers tell me about their lives) than playing interested when you’re not (makes you feel humiliated doesn’t it). “People might not care…” exactly! Getting something from you might be the only reason someone is friends with you, be it on fb or irl.

  • tim speciale

    I wouldn’t over-analyze here.

  • Dan

    His point is well taken. People most totally unnecessary things on facebook all the time. I had one friend who posted a list of everything she had done that day, mundane things like “did 3 loads of laundry, scrubbed the toilets, made speghetti for dinner.” Whether or not her friends care of she posted that, the question is, why did she feel the need to post it? To whit, why did “Mary” feel the need to broadcast that she had a colonoscopy? It’s strange the things people broadcast, as if they just need to be heard and to know that people are thinking of them.

  • http://www.stoltingmediagroup.com/ Stolting Media Group

    The statement that I made (8 months ago) was more in relation to the second sentence…. which read: “but you never know when she’s going to post about a job opening at her company.”

    It sounded as if Tim was saying, “I dont want to hear nor care about your colenoscopy, just keep me posted on job openings at your company”.

    I got rid of those type of so called friends online and offline along time ago.

  • http://www.crystal-jade.net/ Shane Knight

    thanks for sharing a great resource with us really helpful for all the webmaster for making social media efforts counts

  • Orpheus Gang

    I made this short video about “social networking” issues:

    Hope i will be helpful.

  • Only one

    Am I the only one who has no social networking profile as an introverted reclusive hermit and old man of the internet? Putting all that out there seems stupidly dangerous to me and even more so now that the NSA is collecting everything everyone posts ever and using it against people (openly that is; they’ve always done this probably).