Real, face-to-face conversations don’t have a delete button or a backspace feature. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as text messaging, has changed the way people make friends, and interact with the people they already know.
How do people represent themselves?
“Some people are much more extroverted and vocal on social media,” said Elon University sophomore Tyler Lehmann. “It always throws me off when someone is different on Facebook or Twitter than they are in person.”
Instead of meeting people and conversing face to face, people are now able to carefully craft their appearance and conversations exactly the way they want. When talking to someone online, one can write something, then delete or edit any words they might think twice about saying.
So, while social media allows us to meet far more people and interact with them in new ways, the authenticity of our appearance and interactions is potentially diluted.
“I know some people that are not extremely extroverted, but on social media will use a lot of exclamation points and descriptive language that might not reflect the person that I know them as,” said Elon sophomore Madeline Wise. “Inversely, there are some super outgoing people that never post on social media so you might think they are more introverted, even when that’s not the case.”
People’s level of involvement and interest in social media affects their representation of themselves in ways less deceiving and more honest. People that are less involved on Facebook are likely to come off as more introverted, posting fewer times and interacting with others online much less. This is the perception, regardless of their actual personality, be it extroverted or introverted.
Alexis Franzese, assistant professor of sociology at Elon University has done research dealing with authenticity, and what it means to be authentic in society.
“I believe people use social media to construct a self that they wish to communicate to the world,” said Franzese. “This constructed self is typically more socially desirable than the real self.”
This supports the belief that people can be less than honest when it comes to representing themselves on the Internet, allowing positive traits to show and negative ones to be hidden.
“I believe that social media can help people to get closer to this idealized version of the self as they alter their behavior in ways that allow them to post images that are consistent with the desired self,” said Franzese. “Social media also provides a way to connect with others with shared aspirations, or shared ideal selves.”
Understandably, people are attempting to convey the most likable iteration of themselves in order to promote themselves to people they can’t interact with on a regular basis. When a potential employer can view an online persona before actually meeting a potential employee, it is understandable to want a profile to be a positive representation and free of anything negative. It is unreasonable to think that people have nothing negative in their lives, so altering their appearance online is sometimes a necessity. However, altering ones self in this way is very different from being intentionally dishonest about interests, activities, or personality.
“I never post pictures of myself in a bathing suit unless it’s from a family vacation,” said Wise in regard to the possibility of future employers viewing her profile. “I also untag myself or hide a photo from my timeline if I don’t think it’s appropriate [for them to see].”
This is a very real concern for many college students attempting to enter the workforce. Many people don’t even know how to make their Facebook profiles private, as Facebook constantly changes the formatting of the site, as well as the privacy functions. (For a thorough walk through on how to adjust the privacy settings on a Facebook account, see the sidebar.)
The perspective of a high school student is very different, as most aren’t concerned with long-term employment yet.
“I would say I don’t really tailor my profile to potential employers or colleges,” said Connor Cross, a junior at Lovejoy High School in Lucas, Texas. “I am aware of what I say and post, though it’s not like it’s just a stream of nonsense all the time.”
Representation through interests
Some people are more involved in social media, and they believe being more active allows them to better represent themselves through their posts.
“I think my Facebook is a pretty accurate representation of who I am in person,” said Lehmann. “I put some effort into keeping it that way.”
Things like music, art and news can all be shared by someone on their account, or posted to their account by their friends. People with shared interests are likely to post similar media online.
“My friends like to post music and funny pictures on my wall fairly regularly that I believe reflect my personality quite well,” said Wise. “I also like to repost interesting articles, specifically science related, which show my interests.”
If people are involved in their appearance on social media, they are more likely to represent themselves more accurately to those viewing their online profiles.
“I typically use my profile to emphasize parts of my personality and tastes that I want people to know about me,” said Sam McCorcle, a UNC Chapel Hill sophomore. “This includes things like my taste in music and my tendency towards goofy YouTube videos.”
Who uses it and why?
To understand how people create online iterations of themselves, it must first be understand who uses social media, and why these people use it.
“Surveys say, people use social media to stay in touch with friends, and share information and ideas,” said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project. “People seek out communities and share knowledge and information with these people.”
Social media goes beyond simply sharing pictures and videos within these communities. People share real, relevant and important information in order to better educate and inform those they know, or intentionally target with a post.
“Since the recession began, we’ve see a lot of people exchanging information about jobs and cities to move to, or those in decline which should be avoided,” said Rainie. “People are using social media to try and improve their lives.“
People also use social media to keep in contact with family or friends that are far away, or otherwise inaccessible.
“I use social media to stay up to date with some of my favorite musicians, as well as with close friends and family,” said McCorcle. “I use it as a way to stay in the loop with different things I care about.”
Still others use social media as a source of news, as top news stories are often reposted and shared via Twitter or Facebook.
“I also use social media to keep up with current events,” said Wise. “I usually learn about something going on in the world through Facebook before I ever see it on a television or in a newspaper.”
Case in point, on Sept. 17, 2013, a gas leak occurred on Elon’s campus, and the news broke on the Elon Police twitter account. The University actually found out about the gas leak through Twitter, and addressed it accordingly, evacuating the buildings for a couple of hours until the situation was resolved.
News is now broken on Twitter or Facebook fairly regularly, showing the importance that social media now plays in our lives.
“I spend more time looking at news and information from my favorite bands on Twitter than I do actually talking to people,” said Cross.
According to Lee Rainie’s organization, The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, the biggest factor determining social media use is age. 89 percent of Internet users between 18-29 use social media, compared with 78 percent of users 30-49 years old, 60 percent of users 50-64 years old, and just 43 percent of users 65 and older.
Additionally, according to the study, annual household income has no significant effect on social media use, education level after graduating high school has little effect, and urban users are just five percent more likely to use social media than rural users.
The only other significant factor in social media use is race, according to this study. 70 percent of white Internet users are on social media, compared with 75 percent of black users and 80 percent of Hispanic users. Also, women are 4 percent more likely to use social media than men.
What does this tell us?
Age clearly has the largest effect on social media use, due largely to the availability of technology and the relatively recent Internet boom. For people older than 65, this technology simply didn’t exist until they were middle aged or older. For younger users, some have grown up using computers and the Internet their entire lives, and that familiarity leads to use.
“Younger folks are more engaged in almost every platform of social media than older folks, and they use social media more aggressively and expansively,” said Rainie, citing the Pew Center’s study. “Additionally, African-Americans are much more likely to use Twitter than whites are, and in many cases, higher income persons are more likely to use Pintrest and Linkedin than lower income individuals. No economic differences have been found for users on Facebook. “
Overall, social media is being used more and more by a higher percentage of Internet users. According to the Pew Internet Research website, “As of May 2013, almost three quarters (72%) of online U.S. adults use social networking sites, up from 67% in late 2012. When we first started asking about social networking sites in February 2005, just 8% of online adults said they used social networking sites.”
How has social media changed us?
The biggest question about social media is to what extent is it replacing face-to-face conversations? The answer is a tough one because no one was keeping data on interactions before the Internet began. However, there are some clues that indicate social media is simply increasing the amount of communication we partake in.
“The overall volume of communication is growing rapidly,” said Rainie. “Think about going out with your friends on the weekend, you are texting or Facebook messaging about where you’re going to meet up, and the end event is a face-to-face encounter.”
Above all, social media makes communication simple and efficient, saving people time and energy.
“The convenience factor is just so much better and easier with texting, email, instant messaging,” said Rainie. “Specific exchanges, quick exchanges are easier and more efficient, as these were never profound human experiences, and now they are electronic, just because it’s easier.”
“The most important functions of social media are those associated with connection,” said McCorcle. “It allows people to be efficient with their time when catching up with friends and family, as well as staying up to date with their various interests.”
Often, social media creates a place for communication that otherwise would not take place.
“I believe [social media is] supplement rather than replacement,” said Franzese, “and in many cases facilitate communication that would not otherwise be occurring, i.e. social media with more distant acquaintances that one would otherwise not be communicating with.”
The ability to connect with someone halfway around the world is unique to the age of social media and the Internet. While people can reach almost anyone on Earth with a telephone, it can be both expensive and impractical. With social media, a friend in China is as close as the next-door neighbor.
“This is a complimentary world,” said Rainie. “We use tools that are appropriate to what we need, and we are doing lots of socializing in many different ways.”