EVANSTON, Ill. --- A friend posts a picture on Facebook that shows you picking food out of your teeth. Awkward!
Such Facebook faux pas are common. But depending on who you are and to whom you allow access to your Facebook page, such embarrassments can cause greater anguish, according to a new Northwestern University study.
"Almost every participant in the study could describe something that happened on Facebook in the past six months that was embarrassing or made them feel awkward or uncomfortable,” said Jeremy Birnholtz, one of the authors of the paper. “We were interested in the strength of the emotional response to this type of encounter."
People most concerned about social appropriateness (high self monitors) and those with a diverse network of friends on Facebook -- who allow access to co-workers, clients and friends, for example -- are more likely to strongly experience a “face threat,” the study found. Whereas people who felt they had a high level of Facebook skills reported experiencing these kinds of threats less severely.
"Perhaps people with more Facebook experience, who know how to control settings, delete pictures and comments and untag, think they knew how to deal with these encounters or at least try to deal with them," Birnholtz said.
Birnholtz is an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Northwestern and director of the Social Media Lab at Northwestern. The paper will be presented in February 2014, the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in Baltimore.
Interestingly, people with a high level of general Internet skills -- who may understand the importance of online reputations -- also reported more severe reactions to face threats, Birnholtz noted.
These are the type of violations or threats people in this study reported experiencing most often:
- Norm violations: This is the most common type of threat study participants reported experiencing (45 percent) and involves situations when social norms are violated and one’s behavior is exposed in a way that could lead to social and emotional consequences.
- Ideal self-presentation violations: This is the second most common threat reported (29 percent) and involves ideal self-presentation violations, when content posted is inconsistent with the manner in which a person wants to appear to his or her Facebook audience.
- Association effects: These threats are a little less common (21 percent) and involve people worrying about their self-presentation because of how someone they associate with on Facebook is presenting himself.
- Aggregate effects: This is the least common threat (5 percent) and it occurs when an individual’s content gains higher visibility within his or her network as more people like it or comment on it. The unexpected attention can cause one to feel self-conscious about their self-presentation.
For the study, researchers recruited Facebook users through university websites and Craigslist. Only 15 of the 165 people surveyed had not experienced some kind of face threat in the past six months.
Participants were asked to describe a recent uncomfortable Facebook experience and rate the severity of the threat on a scale of one to five. Information about their personality type, Internet and Facebook skills, size and diversity of their Facebook network was also collected and assessed.
Examples of awkward Facebook encounters from the study follow:
- Norm violation: “I went to a concert with a friend. I had to miss a mandatory meeting to be there … the friend didn't know I wasn't supposed to be going so tagged me in a status saying I was at the venue. My meeting friends found out and were super angry.”
- Ideal self-presentation violation: “I felt uncomfortable when my boyfriend posted an article about condoms on my Facebook wall ... my mom reads my Facebook, and I didn't want her to see that (even though she knows we are sexually active).”
- Association effects: “A friend posted a link to an image that she thought was funny on my wall…I was slightly embarrassed because I did not find the image funny and I was worried about how my other Facebook friends would think of me for having the link on my wall. I did not want my other Facebook friends to think that I was the type of person to find the image funny.”
- Aggregate effects: “A friend of mine commented on a picture I forgot I had posted of me with my ex-boyfriend and it showed in the newsfeed.”
Future research may focus on the specific actions people take to resolve face-threatening acts, Birnholtz said. In the meantime, people should think twice about a friend’s Facebook audience before commenting on their content or posting to their page, he said.
"People can make bad decisions when posting to your Facebook because they don’t have a good idea of your privacy settings and which friends of yours might see this content,” Birnholtz said. “Facebook doesn’t provide a lot of cues as to how friends want to present themselves to their audience."
He said in the future Facebook could offer more pop-ups and nudges to help people think twice before posting a possible “threat” to a friend’s page.
This work is supported in part by the National Science Foundation (IIS-0915081 and DGE-0824162).
Other authors of this paper are Eden Litt and Madeline E. Smith of Northwestern University and Erin Spottswood and Jeff Hancock of Cornell University.