Staying True to Themselves
Student Facebook profiles, it turns out, match the real thing
Personality used to be a one-per-customer deal: Like it or not, you were who you were, and lying to a pen pal was about the closest you could get to having an alter ego.
That was then. With the advent of MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites, a second, carefully crafted identity is now available to anyone with an Internet connection. And that has psychologists wondering: Just how well do these online personalities match the person sitting at the keyboard?
The answer, it turns out, is pretty well. In a recent study of 133 undergraduates with Facebook profiles, University of Texas psychologist Samuel D. Gosling measured the correlation between personality tests online and off and foundcontrary to the assumption that kilobytes can't capture one's essencethat the students represented themselves quite faithfully.
Gosling polled the group on a standard five-point personality test, which measures extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to new experiences. Then researchers rated the same subjects based only on their Facebook profiles, which usually included photos and lists of interests, from academic majors to favorite books and movies.
Metallica. The researchers found a correlation between assessments in four of the five categories, with emotional stability as the only attribute showing no significant results across personal and online assessments. (Gosling says he was not surprised at the latter, since emotional stability is something that people are good at concealing across most media.)
While extroversion showed the highest correlation, the research suggests that "openness to new experience" is perhaps better conveyed online than in person. A fan of Mendelssohn and Metallica, for example, can communicate a breadth of interests much more quickly online than he can face to face.
Judith Donath, an associate professor at the Media Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who reviewed Gosling's research, divides the content of social networking sites into "signals" and "unintended cues."
"Facebook users don't tend to put a lot of hyper-personal information on their pages," she says, so someone who posted touching personal anecdotes, for example, might come off as oversharing without intending to.
In short, says Gosling, Facebook users aren't generally using the site as an image buffer, a résumé enhancer, or a separate self (though he found scattered evidence of self-enhancement in two categories). "They just use it as a medium for social life," he says.
This story appears in the July 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.