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Social media posts are not a good representation of our true selves

In a new study from Cornell University, researchers have uncovered a significant disconnect between how individuals perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others through their social media posts. 

The study, led by Professor Qi Wang of the Culture & Cognition Lab, is the first of its kind to analyze personality perceptions based on online posts, particularly on Facebook.

New modes of self-presentation 

“Our sense of self and identity is externalized in the digitally mediated world. The proliferation of social media and the internet over the past decades has introduced new modes of self-representation and expression,” wrote the study authors. 

“Posting personal experiences and opinions on social media is a ubiquitous daily activity for many. With the unlimited audience and the permanent storage for the shared information in cyber space, this activity has become an important means for individuals to achieve social bonding and personal expression.”

Little is known, however, about how self-presentations through online posts are viewed by other social media users, noted the researchers.

Reality versus perception

The results of the study suggest that viewers often perceive social media users differently from how the users view themselves. This discrepancy is evident across various personality traits. 

For example, the research indicates that viewers generally perceive Facebook users as having lower self-esteem and being more self-revealing compared to the users’ own self-assessments.

“The impression people form about us on social media based on what we post can differ from the way we view ourselves,” said Professor Wang. “A mismatch between who we are and how people perceive us could influence our ability to feel connected online and the benefits of engaging in social media interaction.”

Social media posts 

Interestingly, the researchers found that the type of content shared influences the accuracy of these assessments. Status updates that included multimedia elements like photos, videos, or links provided a more accurate representation of the user’s personality than those composed solely of text.

The research builds on previous studies that explored personality perceptions from personal websites and online profiles. 

However, the Cornell study was uniquely focused on the perceptions formed through social media posts. In this domain, users often do not share cohesive personal narratives and interact with a wide range of acquaintances, some of whom they barely know.

Social norms

One of the more intriguing aspects of the study is its findings on cultural norms and their manifestation in online personas. The research showed that Facebook status updates often reflect cultural norms related to gender and ethnicity, even when the viewers were unaware of the user’s identity. 

For instance, female users were rated as more extraverted than male users, aligning with broader societal expectations. 

Meaning-making and misconceptions 

White Facebook users were seen as being more extraverted and having greater self-esteem than Asian users, whose cultures place more emphasis on modesty, noted Professor Wang.

“We present ourselves in line with our cultural frameworks, and others can discern our ‘cultured persona’ through meaning making of our posts.”

The experts said that future research should explore this “outsourced meaning-making process” with larger samples of posts, and on other popular platforms such as Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter.

Authentic self-expression 

Professor Wang said the findings could help developers design interfaces that allow people to express themselves more authentically. 

For users, misunderstandings about who they are on social media might not cause direct harm, she said, but could hinder their efforts to foster good communication and relationships.

“If people’s view of us is very different from who we actually are, or how we would like to be perceived, it could undermine our social life and well-being.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

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