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Does life online bend us out of shape?

Be your selves

We behave differently on different social media. Derek Thompson wonders whether we act up online or reveal our true nature

We behave differently on different social media. Derek Thompson wonders whether we act up online or reveal our true nature

Derek Thompson | April/May 2017

A friend who stumbled upon my Twitter account told me that my tweets made me sound like an unrecognisable jerk. “You’re much nicer than this in real life,” she said.

This is a common refrain about social media: that they make people behave worse than they do in “real life”. On Twitter, I snark. On Facebook, I preen. On Instagram, I pose. On Snapchat, I goof. It is tempting to say, as my friend suggested, that these online identities are caricatures of the real me. It is certainly true that social media can unleash the cruellest side of human nature. For many women and minorities, the virtual world is a hellscape of bullying and taunting. But as face-to-face conversation becomes rarer it’s time to stop thinking that it is authentic and social media are artificial. Preener, snarker, poser, goof: they’re all real, and they’re all me.

The internet and social media don’t create new personalities; they allow people to express sides of themselves that social norms discourage in the “real world”. Some people want to lark around in the office but fear their boss will look dimly on their behaviour. Snapchat, however, provides them with an outlet for the natural impulse to caper without disturbing their colleagues. Facebook and Instagram encourage pride in one’s achievements that might appear unseemly in other circumstances. We may come to see face-to-face conversation as the social medium that most distorts our personalities. It requires us to speak even when we don’t know what to say and forces us to be pleasant or acquiescent when we would rather not.

But how does the internet manage to elicit such different sides of our personality? And why should social media reveal some aspect of our humanity that many centuries of chit-chat failed to unearth?

Each social-media platform has its own culture and patois but, broadly speaking, the internet is a kingdom of self-regard. A 2012 Harvard study found that, in interpersonal conversations, people typically talk about themselves for a third of the time. Online, that number jumps to 80%. That’s largely because, on sites like Facebook and Twitter, people assume they are speaking to big audiences. Tête-à-tête, people closely monitor each other for empathy and understanding. Speaking to 1,000 people online, it’s impossible to discern what your followers are thinking. The focus naturally turns inward.

Indeed, the sheer size of an audience can shape the content of our messages. A 2014 study by Alixandra Barasch, then a doctoral candidate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the school, tested this effect by giving subjects a simple task: describe your day to both one person and to a group of people.

The researchers provided each participant with details from an imaginary day, with several enjoyable events (like joining a friend to see an excellent film) and some letdowns (like ordering an underwhelming dessert at a local bakery). They asked par­ti­ci­­­pants to document the day in letters written ­for each audience.

Here is an excerpt from a note in the study intended for just one friend: “My day had a rocky start. After a brief meeting with my mentor, which I was late for by the way, I met up with Charlize to go see a movie…I took her to the Cheesecake Factory for some dessert but they were closed and we had to settle for a Hot n Crusty around the corner. Womp Womp!”

And here is a selection from a note intended for a larger group: “Hey guys! I had a great weekend! I went with a couple of friends to see Iron Man 3. It was phenomenal. I really really enjoyed it! I thought it was way better than the second movie.”

In the first letter, the author was frank and self-deprecating. In the second, she airbrushed out her disappointments to make her day as enviable as possible. This is the vanity of crowds. It’s no wonder that young people send ugly selfies to close friends on Snapchat while reserving beautiful sunsets for bigger audiences on Instagram. Talking to a large group of people induces us to present ourselves in the best possible light.

On Facebook and Twitter, large audiences consist of concentric circles of intimacy, that move from close friends to far-flung colleagues to people we don’t know at all but who, we worry, will judge us nonetheless. In a way that would be impossible offline, the internet requires us to cater to the prejudices of strangers. The mere knowledge that we are being observed changes what we say.

A 2017 survey of women at elite business schools found that those who thought classmates might see their answers said that they would prefer fewer working hours and a salary $18,000 lower than those who did not think that they were being observed. When people think they’re being watched, they tweak their personalities to match the expectations of the crowd – with, in this case, depressingly sexist implications. Social media are like a permanent observation survey, in which users adjust their behaviour to match their local network. As a result, Twitter’s sardonic culture incites new users to be more sardonic, while Instagram’s glut of sunset pictures encourages people to document their lives as if it were a film.

It isn’t just audience size that widens the communication gap. Time does too. Mammal-to-mammal, people pause for no more than two milliseconds before the right to speak is passed between them. In written communications, by contrast, from ink-stained letters to Snaps, people have time to polish and refine their messages. A conver­sation becomes a presentation. The desire to be understood by the other person – to explain yourself further if necessary – is eclipsed by the urge to win likes, retweets, and other quantitative measures of popularity.

This is how social media begin to unwrap our personalities. Being observed makes us aware of our audience; performing for more people tends to make us exaggerate; time to reflect allows us to self-edit. Perhaps it’s not that Facebook and its ilk are turning us into narcissists, but that they encourage us to broadcast, and broadcasts tend to be narcissistic.

These new platforms have unwrapped latent elements in human nature that have till now remained dormant. Sometimes these emerging identities are beautiful. Extreme introverts, or people with social anxiety, may shine with articulate brilliance behind a phone or computer. Having a little time and solitude to consider their ideas helps them communicate more effectively.

Social media have turned a species used to intimacy into performers. But these perfor­mances are not necessarily false. Person­ality is who we are in front of other people. The internet, which exposes our elastic personalities to larger and more diverse groups of people, reveals the upper and lower bounds of our capacity for empathy and cruelty, anxiety and confidence.

I think back to the friend who told me that I seemed like two different people online and in real life. It really surprised me. I always assumed that I was in control of the image of myself I presented to new audiences. But the truth may be entirely opposite. Our audience is our identity.

3 Readers' comments

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Chase Wegmann - April 7th 2017

How many different 'selves do we actually need an outlet for? Have we all become virtual 'Sybil's"? This complete compartmentalization and division of our true selves fractures the personality and results where you are performing for your audience. And if it's performance, is it your true self? We can walk the cat back all the way to Facebook, the original online gallery, where users curate (read: share) their lives for others to peruse and jealousy compare against their own. I'll leave the topic of users freely giving their time to input personal data on themselves and others - curated or not -to be used as a monetized product for these companies to another discussion.

Frankly - April 7th 2017

I did use separate paragraphs - they seem to have mashed together now - unless they magically separate later ... ?

Frankly - April 7th 2017

I reckon asynchronous communication technology - sms, email, messenger, whatsup, etc. and internet discussion forums allow people to feel empowered at the centre of their world-view - able to block, destroy, ignore anyone they disagree with - with impunity. This allows people to feel they can dispense with civility - and dump any bad feelings onto whatever public forum they're on at the moment - thus trolling - apparently we can all do it - on a bad day. Face-to-face conversation requires give and take - we can instantly see the expression on another's face if they don't like what we just said - and we'd probably back-pedal a little preferring not to offend or at least lose our audience. The interesting shift with technology is that whereas before we might have communicated to one or a few people at a time - now with a simple post to online media we have a potential audience of millions - especially if something we post goes viral. Welcome to the Matrix - science fiction often predicts the future - did they predict we might be ectoplasm connected to skynet - choose your fantasy - get your ass to Mars and save the planet - even if it is just a dream - then kiss me dammit !